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In many ways, the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars’ Theatre revival of Gigi (adapted by Anita Loos from Colette’s novella) is as simple as its teenage heroine herself. Located in a fifty-odd seat black box theater half-hidden in the basement of a Morningside Heights Church, with a single set — a relatively sparsely-appointed, though charming, 19th century drawing room – serving to convey two separate locations, Gigi is straightforward, offering little by way of artifice or ornamental razzle-dazzle.
And, like Connie Castanzo’s effervescent would-be courtesan, Gigi is absolutely charming.
Indeed, it is director Peter Dobbins’ willingness to let the quality of the text, the performances, and the story all speak for themselves that makes Gigi so refreshing.
Gigi is the story of a teenage girl in 19th century Paris who comes to realize that the unmarried state of all her female relatives is less accident than architecture: they are all courtesans with varying degrees of success: from Gigi’s failed opera-singer mother Andrée (Kate Chamuris) to the ultimate grande dame, her aunt Alicia (Evangelia Kingsley). For women like Gigi and her ilk, a well-off lover (and a well-crafted mistress contract) is the best hope for social and financial advancement. Gigi’s family has the perfect lover in mind: the dissolute Gaston (Justin Adams), whom the childlike Gigi already adores as a cherished family friend. But as Gigi stands
It’s a premise that could easily be neutered into Pretty Woman with corsets. But Anita Loos’s adaptation preserves just enough of the cynicism of Colette’s novel to maintain the characters’ edge. The production doesn’t gloss over the mercantile nature of sex and love in fin de siècle Paris (a scene where Alicia and Gaston subtly negotiate a price for Gigi’s virginity is at once hilarious and shockingly cold). But it finds room for genuine attraction – and even love – between Gigi and Gaston.
So much of this is down to the downright dazzling chemistry of the actors involved. As Gigi, Connie Castanzo spends the first act in a whirlwind of adolescence: legs akimbo and uncrossed; skirts practically flung over her head. It’s so convincing a performance that by the time an older, more graceful Gigi emerges in Act II, we’re as taken aback as Gaston by the resourceful, self-possessed young woman sooner willing to break her heart than her principles. Castanzo manages the rare feat of conveying both the comic and tragic sides of growing up: her naivete is by turns funny and touching, as we realize even before she does just how far her harmless crush on Ton-Ton has gone. A natural comparison is to Audrey Hepburn, who originated the stage role of Gigi, but Castanzo’s performance goes beyond gamine intelligence; the Gigi we see at the play’s end is not a girl, but a woman: aware of what she is, and of the reserves of her own strength.
And Adams is a worthy foil. Although he starts off the show a little stiff – he’s slightly too young to pull off quite the litany of lovers with whom he’s been associated – his interactions with Gigi are so effortlessly dynamic that we can just about believe that there’s a deep and abiding affection there that has, with time, turned to something more.
There may be something naïve about the play’s conclusion: that, in refusing the role of Gaston’s courtesan, Gigi is rewarded with a lifetime as his bride. But Adams and Castanzo sell their characters so well that it’s easy to believe that, at least this once, such a thing could occur.
It helps that they’re supported by an equally splendid supporting cast. As Andrée, Kate Chamuris adds a haunting complexity to the character of the “failed” courtesan, while Evangelia Kingsley lends a powerful sense of hauteur (along with several of the production’s great lines) to Aunt Alicia.
It’s easy – with all the options of the New York theatre scene – to let shows like Gigi fall by the wayside in favor of big-budget period pieces on Broadway, or high-concept experimental pieces in Bushwick. But to do so would be a shame. Gigi stands as testament to the power of a good story, told well.
Sometimes that’s all you need.
Gigi plays on selected dates through Feb 14 at the Storm Theatre.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.