Anastasia Barzee in Victor Victoria. Photo by Bruce Bennett
Book by: Blake Edwards
Music by: Henry Mancini
Lyrics by: Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn
Directed by: Richard Stafford
Company: Theatre Under the Stars
Run Dates: September 18 – 28th, 2014
If pedestrian lyrics like, “As a man, I would not need to feel like an also-ran. Though I know I never can, ever be a man” or “Paris makes me horny, it’s not like Calinfornie”, make you roll your eyes with contempt, then get set for lots of ocular gymnastics watching Theatre Under the Stars production of Victor Victoria. The musical, based on the 1982 Oscar-nominated movie written and directed by Blake Edwards for his wife, Julie Andrews, made its way to the stage in 1995 with music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn. But even with the talent behind the production (Edwards once again directed and Andrews reprised her role) no one ever accused the stage version of the gender bending story to be a great work of theatre. Fast forward almost 20 years and the same is true for this production despite some wonderful performances, lush set design and direction that delights in spots.
The story aims to take the piss out of the standard drag queen trope by instead introducing the idea of a woman donning the drag persona. It all begins when the avuncular, gay, French club singer Toddy (Tony Sheldon with no hint of a French accent whatsoever) befriends down on her luck Victoria (Anastasia Barzee) after she walks into a small Paris nightclub desperate for a job. She’s awfully talented, even shattering glass with her powerful voice, but not the type of singer that goes over big with the club-going Gay Paree set. After listening to Victoria whine about wishing she were a man in order to get ahead and then watching as his ex-boyfriend actually mistakes her for one, Toddy hatches a plan that will elevate both their careers. Victoria is to become Victor, a Polish count and the world’s best female impersonator. A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. The hitch of course (besides fear of being found out) is love. This is a musical after all. Victoria falls in love with King Marchan (Joey Sorge), a tough charismatic gangster type who is also smitten with her, refusing to believe that she is a he.
Directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford with a cavalcade of sumptuous moody sets by Robin Wagner and luxuriously cheerful costumes by Willa Kim, Victor Victoria is delightful to look at even if it doesn’t always work as an interesting or even credible musical tale. Of particular note is Stafford’s direction of the farcical near miss scene set in a hotel where everyone is busily sneaking into everyone else’s room to spy on their goings on. In a terrific chess piece style of direction, Stafford orchestrates what his cast sees and doesn’t see and how they hide and reveal themselves with panache.
It’s moments like this that make the play far more engaging than any of the musical numbers. In addition to the constant roll call of cringe-worthy lyrics, the music, save for the signature number, Le Jazz Hot, is utterly unremarkable despite the lovely effort put forth by the live orchestra. Many of the eighteen numbers drone on far too long, often to compensate for the complicated male to female costume changes required backstage.
Yet still, even with all the issues inherent in the show, one can’t help but kinda like it. The credit for this disconnect lands squarely on the shoulders of the talented cast who manage to push through the tedium and distaste and end up charming the pants off us. Sheldon as Toddy, despite his lack of accent and a voice that does well but never amazes, oozes warmth and loveliness. When he himself gets a chance at love our hearts burst with happiness for him. Sorge as Marchan strikes a sultry machismo figure that never falls down the rabbit hole of stereotype. It’s his musical number, King’s Dilemma, where he struggles with the notion that he may in fact be in love with a man, which is the standout moment in the show. Angel Reda, as King’s buxom, breathy, sexually charged and vengeful girlfriend Norma, is equally good at taking a character that is woefully over the top and taming her into a wonderfully funny role that we can’t help but feel affection for. As the starring role, Barzee navigates the androgynous thing to her advantage, cultivating a vulnerability that has us rooting for her throughout. Add in her beautiful voice and she captures us even more. My only issue with Barzee’s performance was her lack of dance ability. Cast in front of the talented chorus, it’s clear that Barzee is not at the same level.
This was made even more apparent in her two night club act scenes where Stafford keeps Victoria oddly stationary while dancers flit wildly all around her. A little more physicality in her act would have gone a long way in helping us believe that Victor was in fact the toast of the town. As it is, we have to take their word for it, but with characters will like so much, that’s a pill that isn’t too onerous to swallow.
For musical fans – No one can claim this musical is top-tier in terms of music, lyrics and dancing. But thanks to a hardworking cast and a beautiful set, Victor Victoria is a fun addition to your playbook. Don’t expect to walk out wanting to buy the soundtrack or pull up YouTube clips of other performances and you’ll have a perfectly good time. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – While the subject is somewhat sexual, this is gender bending light. No uncomfortable moments here. In fact the story is nothing but easy-going throughout and despite musical numbers that drag on too long (you didn’t expect me to get through this review without a drag joke, did you?) the clip is fairly fizzy. With such a sumptuous production you’ll certainly feel like you’ve got your money’s worth. SEE IT
For theatre junkies – Horrible lyrics, implausible and undercooked plot, forgettable music. Not exactly a recipe for your enjoyment. Yes the performances are great and will garner affection from you. But really, affection is not the sum total of what you are after in your theatre experience. SKIP IT