There she meets Caroll “Toddy” Todd (David Schmittou), a kindly gentleman who stands her to a hot chocolate and brandy (which is for him) over the protestations of the officious manager, Henri Labisse (James Beaman) who sounds like Inspector Clouseau. Labisse reminds Toddy of his outstanding tab, incurring one of his many minor injuries played for laughs. It is Paris, 1934, and several lives are about to change.
As most everyone knows, Victor/Victoria was the last big film of Julie Andrews’ career as a musical comedy romantic lead. It was a novel premise in 1982, but not a new one. Its roots were in a German movie from 1933. It tells a gender bending fairy tale in which Victoria becomes “Victor,” a Polish count educated in England (hence his Etonian accent) who is touted by Toddy as the world’s most accomplished female impersonator. This is the basic plot of the musical, as well. With a fine pedigree, book by Blake Edwards and music by Henry Mancini (with an assist from Frank Wildhorn after Mancini’s inconvenient death) and Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics, it finally opened as a Broadway musical in 1995, complete with Andrews. It was a hit with audiences and enjoyed a long run.
Still, that production may be best remembered as being the role for which Andrews turned down a Tony nomination (she had also been nominated for an Oscar for the movie, as had two other cast members) because she was the only one recognized for the show in any capacity. That boosted ticket sales for a while. Its other claim to fame is that Andrews had to leave the part when her voice was compromised by the vocal nodules that ultimately ended her singing career. In retrospect, its troubles may be the most interesting thing about Victor/Victoria.
The score is pleasant enough with a couple of standouts, most famously “Le Jazz Hot,” a Fosse-fied production number that introduces “Victor” to tout le monde Paris under the aegis of Toddy. He and Victoria are now best friends and roommates who present themselves as a gay couple. Victor soars to fame with the support of impresario Andre Cassell (Whit Reichert, whose performance does illustrate that there really are no small parts). One of “Victor’s” most devoted fans is King Marchan (Gary Lynch) who refuses to believe “she” really is a “he.” King’s companion, Norma Cassidy (Melinda Cowan) is inflamed with jealousy, but she too, is very attracted to “Victor,” especially after “The Tango,” a clever dance number in which Victoria makes every butch move in the guy arsenal while keeping a safe enough distance from Norma so that she can’t expose “his” secret. The other member of King’s small entourage is his beefy bodyguard Mr. “Squash” Bernstein played by Steve Judkins whose funny and touching performance is a highlight of the show. Stages Artistic Director Michael Hamilton is credited with both direction and musical staging. The ensemble musical numbers are excellently mounted, but the show seems more slowly paced overall than it needs to be after an admirably quick set-up.
Of course, all this sorts itself out to a happy ending with some soul-searching along the way, most notably the über-macho King’s acceptance that if he loves a man (though he never is truly convinced that Victoria IS Victor) then so be it. Victoria’s dilemma provides a moment of dramatic interest when she tries to balance her love for King (which happened at first sight, in true Cinderella fashion) with her desire to remain a man outwardly because she is enjoying the power males have, even gay ones, compared to women. In a subplot, Toddy finds love even more suddenly than Victoria and with an unlikely partner, as well. Of the main characters, only Norma gets the short end of the stick. Presumably this is justice for her trying to compromise King with his Chicago “associate” Sal Andretti (Steve Isom) who comes to Paris with a couple of goons (John Flack, Darin Wood) to take King down, but of course, he doesn’t succeed.
Aside from the fact that this one-joke premise gets a bit tedious over the two-hours plus it takes to play it out, my biggest problem with the show is Norma. Melinda Cowan is very good as the dumbest blonde ever to totter across a stage on stilettos, but she may be too good. This is a stock character descended from screwball comedy by way of Billie Dawn (Born Yesterday and less offensive because the platinum roof is hiding the gold underneath) and Miss Abigail, perpetual fiancée of Nathan Detroit (Guys and Dolls). In fact, Cowan played Abigail at Stages, which made it easier to draw the parallels between them. I’m not denying that she’s funny, but she perpetuates an offensive stereotype, and I’d like to see that trope put to rest. It’s ironic that a show whose raison d’etre is to bust stereotypes relies so heavily on this one. To be fair, though, I should mention that her big number, “Chicago, Illinois” is a highlight, primarily for the choreography, but it comes at a time in the show that doesn’t make sense. She’s left Paris, is off-stage for quite a while, then comes back and performs at a speakeasy. After it, she rats King out to Sal.
Victor/Victoria closes Stages silver anniversary season, and it does so in fine technical fashion. The lights are evocative and appropriate (Matthew McCarthy), the costumes by Lou Bird are lovely, and the dancers are energetic and gifted (Dana Lewis choreographs). The sets by Mark Halpin look amazing but create a major distraction. There is a hotel with two adjoining rooms and the Chez Lui nightclub, among smaller spaces like Toddy’s flat and Victoria’s dressing room. When the big pieces come out, it sounds as if there’s a roller derby going on behind the soloists who are singing ballads in front of the drop that represents a Paris street. It is unlike Stages to produce anything that isn’t technically perfect or close to it.
The ensemble provides much of the entertainment during the production numbers and at quieter times, as well. Stages touchstones Zoe Vonder Haar and John Flack have several cameos. Actually, Schmittou is becoming something of a regular, and we’re lucky to have him in St. Louis. He is a wonderful, if rather young, Toddy, though his voice showed a bit of strain here and there. (I saw the evening performance on a two-show day.) Cardia can belt, all right; in fact, her D-flat literally breaks glass, but her intonation is rather odd and her mike is turned up too high. It’s good, but it sounds strange. Maybe the idea is to make her seem more vocally masculine—it’s hard to say. Lynch is a fine singer and a great gangster, but he’s an unlikely Prince Charming. He reminds me of the long-ago character actor Edward Arnold, who, to my knowledge never played a romantic lead. But if this show is about anything, it is that outward appearances do not matter, “the heart wants what it wants” (from Pascal; it sounds better in French) and overall, Victor/Victoria gives the Stages audience what it wants too.
Victor/Victoria runs through Oct. 8 at Stages St. Louis. You may visit www.stagesstlouis.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis FM radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT