at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire

By Albert Williams

Four years ago, when writer-director Blake Edwards’s theatrical adaptation of his 1982 movie Victor/Victoria first appeared in Chicago, the focus was on the show’s star. Playing at the Shubert Theatre, the musical heralded the return of Edwards’s wife, Julie Andrews–for whom both the screen and stage versions were written–to Broadway, where Victor/Victoria was headed following its Chicago tryout. I saw it here three times, watching as Edwards and his brain trust–including Andrews, coproducer Tony Adams, lyricist Leslie Bricusse, and composer Frank Wildhorn (who was brought on board to complete Henry Mancini’s score when he died in 1994)–trimmed and tightened a somewhat lumbering show into a brisk, brash musical farce.

Victor/Victoria went on to become a Broadway crowd pleaser–but only as long as Andrews was in it. The show closed soon after Raquel Welch took over the lead, and a post-Broadway touring edition with pop singer Toni Tennille, booked into the Chicago Theatre last October, was abruptly canceled due to poor ticket sales.

Now Victor/Victoria is back, at the Marriott Theatre in north suburban Lincolnshire–its first regional production since the touring and Broadway shows. And Marriott is the kind of venue that will test the work’s durability. It has a strong, largely subscription-based following among north-suburban residents who’d rather not drive into the city and shell out big bucks for tickets and parking. Augmented by theater buffs from the city, this viewer base is eager to be pleased but not necessarily easy to please. So a show like Victor/Victoria represents both an opportunity and a challenge. With its heavy-duty female lead, it’s a natural vehicle for Marriott fave Paula Scrofano. But because its commercial track record is less than overwhelming, this is a show that must stand or fall on its merits.

Happily, even in Mark S. Hoebee’s somewhat workmanlike staging, Marriott’s Victor/Victoria affirms that there’s life after Julie Andrews, though this isn’t an enduring classic of musical theater by any means. The forgettable score contains only two really good songs, both Mancini-composed holdovers from the movie: the sassy production number “Le Jazz Hot” and “Crazy World,” a wistful ballad in the tradition of Mancini’s 60s hits “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” But Victor/Victoria is strong where most musicals are deficient: it has a snappy script filled with surprises and more than a few touches of Mack Sennett-style slapstick and 1930s screwball comedy and burlesque, not surprising considering such Edwards movies as The Great Race and the Pink Panther series. Victor/Victoria is the creation of an intelligent man with a pervasive fondness for lowbrow humor, especially fast-paced physical gags and smart-ass, sometimes vulgar sexual comedy.

But Edwards, a canny artist, provides an intriguing subtext to the farcical surface. He based his story on the 1933 German movie musical Viktor und Viktoria, written and directed by Rheinhold SchŸnzel, reworking the original plot and characters to telling effect. In Viktor und Viktoria–released the same year Hitler came to power–the title characters are two different people: a heartily heterosexual female impersonator, Viktor, and a woman singer, Susanne, whom he recruits as his replacement when he gets sick. Posing as “Mr. Viktoria,” Susanne becomes a cabaret star, then is forced to decide whether or not to reveal her true gender when she falls in love with a handsome playboy. Coyly stifling any implications of ambiguous or alternative sexuality, SchŸnzel has the playboy learn almost immediately that Susanne is “just a girl” (to use the title of Viktor und Viktoria’s 1935 English remake).

Edwards’s 1982 film transformed the skirt-chasing Viktor into the gaily gay Toddy (Robert Preston), who transforms out-of-work English operetta soprano Victoria Grant (Andrews) into cross-dressing cabaret star “Victor,” who doffs a feminine wig at the end of every show to reveal a short, slicked-back masculine haircut (just as the real-life transvestite trapeze artist Barbette did in 1920s Paris). But the film’s romantic plot–Victoria is infatuated with a hunky American nightclub owner (James Garner)–still avoided sexual ambiguity by having the American discover Victoria’s secret early on. That was a cop-out, some critics complained: the lovers’ first kiss “would have been daring and truly unique if it had come before Garner discovered Andrews’ true sex, [but] Victor/Victoria is as straight as the values it pretends to challenge,” wrote film historian Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet.

When Edwards reworked Victor/ Victoria for the stage, he took such criticisms to heart. Of course, by 1995 Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s musical La Cage aux Folles had placed middle-aged male lovers center stage, pleasing mainstream audiences while preaching loudly and proudly the virtues of tolerance. But La Cage always maintains a clear distinction between its gay and straight characters, while the stage version of Victor/Victoria blurs the line between homo and hetero: the male lead declares his love for Victoria before he learns that she’s female. This follows a long period during which the hero wrestles with, and finally accepts, the possibility that he’s homosexual–and it leads to the story’s most important crisis, as Victoria and her lover must decide whether to pose as gay or admit that (gasp) they’re straight after all.

This conflict–what to conceal versus what to reveal–is linked to the show’s running theme of pseudo-royalty, recalling Shakespeare’s gender-switching comedies: Victor/Victoria is the love story of two show-business monarchs whose claims to power are based on fundamental deceptions. Victoria (note her name) is the “queen” of Paris cabaret. But her stardom rests on the illusion that she’s a gay man with a gimmick, not just one more woman with a high voice and good legs. Her American inamorata is one King Marchan, supposed owner of a top Chicago nightclub. But this king is just a pawn of the gangsters who really own the club, and his silent partners prove very vocal when they think their interests are threatened because their macho front man is a “fairy.”

Victoria–played here by the very able Scrofano–poses as a man partly for professional reasons but also because it gives her a semblance of power and independence (“hands in pocket, running things,” as she sings); it also unsexes her, offering her a refuge from romance after a series of failed attempts to find Prince Charming. So her attraction to King–the burly Brian Robert Mani–creates a threat not only to her career but to her self-image: revealing her true sex would force her to abdicate the realm she’s created for herself emotionally as well as professionally. Likewise, the possibility that King is gay challenges not only his masculinity but his professional position. In order to achieve happiness–defined here not only as romance with another but as acceptance of one’s true self–the make-believe monarchs must abdicate their thrones, just as real-life royal Edward VIII did in the era in which Victor/Victoria is set. (The show’s second-act opener reinforces the theme of royal position as dangerous deception with a lavish, slightly lascivious Ziegfeld-style production number, “Louis Says”; the song, whose title is a pun on the French for Louis XVI, has Victoria playing a naughty Marie Antoinette mocking her monarch husband–“Louie’s screwy, who cares what Louie says?”–as she heads, so to speak, for the guillotine.)

Like the nobles in Shakespeare’s romances, Victoria and King both have truth-telling fools who manipulate their masters’ love lives. Victoria’s is her friend and mentor Toddy (played with puckish panache by Gene Weygandt), who not only teaches her how to be a dapper man but grooms her into a glamorous woman–because he secretly yearns to be one himself. (Far more improbable than Victoria posing as a man is her overnight transformation from straitlaced operetta soprano into a bravura blues belter.) His counterpart is King’s bodyguard Squash (the beefy, bullet-headed Fred Zimmerman, who recalls the young Peter Boyle), prompted by circumstances to embrace his own latent homosexuality. And, as is often true in Shakespeare, King is initially attached to the wrong woman: Norma is a shrill, malaprop-spouting bleached blond whose comically combative relationship with King echoes the one between Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight or Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.

When I first saw Victor/Victoria in 1995 I dismissed Norma as a sexist stereotype. But here, thanks in part to Kelly Anne Clark’s flamboyant yet nicely shaded portrayal, she emerges as a cautionary caricature of the way a male-dominated world simultaneously celebrates and denigrates female sexuality–she’s an extreme example of the powerlessness that drives Victoria to pose as a man. Norma, in turn, idiotically imitates Victoria’s glamorous stage act in a tawdry turn as a Chicago speakeasy headliner. The two team up for what is perhaps the show’s funniest sequence: Victoria partners Norma in a tango, fondling her fanny to prove “he’s” a man while striving to keep her from stroking “his” strapped-in chest.

This tango is credited to Rob Marshall, Victor/Victoria’s Broadway choreographer. The other numbers, staged by proficient local choreographer Kenny Ingram, have a perkiness whose initial charm wears thin: one misses the slinky-kinky eroticism of Marshall’s original dances. A similar peppy briskness drives the entire Marriott production, keeping the action and the laughs rolling but muting the material’s subtler side. Yet the intimacy of the in-the-round theater draws the audience closer to the characters than did Edwards’s original sprawling, splashy proscenium staging, and the material is strong enough to work even without an elaborate bi-level Broadway-scale set. The only scene that really loses impact is the elaborate hide-and-seek chase through Victoria’s and King’s adjoining hotel suites: this trademark Edwards set piece still amuses with its pratfalls and peekaboos (thanks largely to the agile clowning of Jim FitzGerald as an accident-prone nightclub owner), but the flow of traffic around the stage is considerably harder to follow than it was in the original production. Thomas M. Ryan’s Marriott set design is best when it’s most minimal: the clutter of furniture in the hotel scenes distracts from the action. And while Nancy Missimi’s costumes have some nice touches (like Norma’s loud leopard-print dress with shoes to match), her glitzy chorus-number outfits don’t quite fit the dancers’ sleek bodies, and Victoria’s gown for “Le Jazz Hot” looks positively matronly.

Thankfully, Scrofano is anything but matronly. A strong actress and accomplished comedienne, she confidently registers Victoria’s rapid changes, from luckless desperation to newly empowered confidence to perplexity to radiant joy at the end when she transfers her onstage persona to drag queen Toddy. Moreover, her big, wide-ranging voice is far more powerful than Andrews’s was at the Shubert in 1995 (long before the star’s recent, well-publicized throat problems), though Scrofano’s singing could use more nuance. Under the brisk pace set by conductor Patti Garwood on opening night, Scrofano tended to barge through her songs rather than relish them; this was especially bothersome in “Crazy World,” a tune whose melodic, delicate, reflective ebb and flow are crucial to conveying the themes of yearning and uncertainty in the lyrics.

But even with its flaws–some of which may have been due to opening-night tension–Marriott’s production proves Victor/Victoria a durable piece of musical comedy–splashy escapist entertainment that also has some substance. As with its gender-bending protagonist, there’s more to this show than first meets the eye.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Brian McCormick.