Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Truth be told, the early buzz on the stage version of Victor/Victoria had not been so great. The show opened in New York in 1995 to tepid reviews, which for the most part praised Miss Andrews and Rachel York in a supporting role, admired the costumes and stage design, but not much else. Then a few months later, Rent opened on Broadway. For the pundits, Victor/Victoria became an illustration of tired, outdated musicals in contrast to Rent's youth, vitality and relevance. Victor/Victoria completed more than 700 performances on Broadway, but it struggled after Andrews left the show (replaced by Raquel Welch) and, once closed, was soon forgotten.
Thanks to Artistry, we have another go at this 24-year-old musical that had so much going for it, but fizzled out. Artistry's reliably high standard for quality productions, this one directed and choreographed by Michael Matthew Ferrell, gives Victor/Victoria every opportunity to succeed, and on most levels it does. It has a well-written, very funny book, with most of the humor holding up well over the passing decades (recognized quite a bit of dialogue, and almost all of the plot points, from the 1982 film). Ferrell creates some sizzling dance sequences, in particular "Le Jazz Hot," a holdover from the movie, and directs the book scenes, which are the show's strength, with sizzle and style. An extended scene of characters hiding, and missing each by inches, plays out with sly finesse. That scene, with its incidental music suggesting furtive tiptoes, brings to mind the old Pink Panther movies; no surprise, as Blake Edwards created and directed those too.
The primary weakness is the musicnot its performance, for the jazzy notes are handled with exquisite flare by Artistry's inestimable music director Anita Ruth and well sung by a strong cast, especially leading lady Ann Michelswho, though not Julie Andrews, may be the closest thing to her on Twin Cities stages (let's not forget her splendid Mary Poppins at Chanhassen Dinner Theater). The movie's songs were written by Henry Mancini and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, and a few of them were very good: "Le Jazz Hot," "You and Me," and especially, "Crazy World." However, more songs were needed to flesh out the stage musical (it is usually the case that musicals written for the screen have notably fewer songs than do musicals written for the stage), and Mancini died before those additional songs could be written. His replacement, Frank Wildhorn, did not deliver the same caliber of tunefulness. The added songs mostly work within the context of the book, but they feel flat where they should add fizz to the giddy story placed before us.
About that storyVictoria Grant, a down on her luck English singer in 1930s Paris, is unable to find work even though she has an amazing soprano voice with high notes that literally shatter glass. She is befriended by Toddy, an aging performer at the Chez Lui, a club featuring performers in drag. Toddy conceives of a ridiculous plot for Victoria to disguise herself as a man, and then perform as a female impersonatorsomething she could obviously do very well. Why, it's so crazy, it just might workand does! Victoria becomes Victor, a Polish count disowned by his family for being gay, introduced as Toddy's new lover. Among the guests at her/his big club opening are Chicago gangster King Marchan and his loud-mouthed moll Norma Cassidy. When he sees Victor dressed as a woman, King takes immediate interestand is crestfallen when Victor reveals himself to be a "man" at the end of the act. He can't believe Victor is not really a womanwhy else would he feel what he is feeling? Norma thinks it is hilarious, or perhaps sickening, that her boyfriend is falling for a guy. And Victoriaa woman, after all, at heartfinds herself smitten with King.
From there the plot thickens. Sort of. It never delves into the realities of what these people are up to. It's the kind of plot where people know within five minutes how they feel about each otheralso where someone decides to be a female impersonator one day, and the next day has a full routine ready to knock out of the park, complete with glamorous costumes and backup dancers who know the song and every step as if they'd been rehearsing for weeks. Victor/Victoria requires the suspension of a lot of disbelief. Go along with it, and you'll have a good time, even with a sub-par score.
Aside from Michelswho gives a five-star performance, dancing, singing, flaunting her comic chops and, when called for, conveying heartfelt emotionthe stand out in the cast is Emily Scinto as Norma Cassidy. To be fair, Norma is a plum role for any actress. It won raves and an Oscar nomination for Lesley Ann Warren in the movie, and raves for Rachel York on Broadway. Scinto brings a "claw your way to the top" ferocity, mixed with the naivete of a classic "dumb blonde," and even manages to draw laughs from one of those lifeless songs, "Paris Makes Me Horny."
Rich Hamson gives a solid performance as Toddy, ever an optimist and bon vivant, and Shad Olson makes a very believable King, a tough guy suddenly worried that he might be getting soft. His voice is a bit rough, as befits the role, and in his solo spot, "King's Dilemma," he comes across as a human and not a cardboard character. Eric Smedsrud is endearing as King's bodyguard Squash Bernstein, who discovers there's more to life than strong-arming wise guys. Leslie Vincent is amusing as Henrietta (written as Henri, but in Victor/Victoria, boys will be girls, etc.), proprietor of Chez Lui who is obsessed with suspicions about Victor's true identity, and Brandon A. Jackson brings his powerful voice to the role of Victor's agent, Andre Cassell. Cast members in other smaller roles, and the entire ensemble, do strong work throughout, especially going through the stylish paces of Ferrell's choreography.
The design team has done a swell job of creating the feel of 1930s Paris, with an art-deco style setting by Jeff Brown that sleekly transitions from nightclub scenes to the swank hotel where King, Norma, Victoria and Toddy are all lodging. Brown also designed the effective lighting, which draws our focus from scene to fast-shifting scene. Ed Gleeman's costumes suit the time and place, with the glitz of the costumes worn during the nightclub acts making the desired impression of decadence gone wild.
Some things just don't work. The opening for the second act, one of Victor's stage performances, is a dreadful Louis XIV themed number called "Louis Says," and a bit with a hotel chambermaid drinking on the job goes after cheap laughs as she increasingly is unable to function. An "Apache Dance" is inserted into the show, with male dancers throwing their female partners down on the floor. This was no doubt once very fashionable, but comes across as neither good dance nor good humor. Apparently, not everything in Victor/Victoria has aged so well.
I can honestly say that I am glad to finally have made it to the stage musical Victor/Victoria, even if I missed out on Julie Andrews. The principal players all do shining work, especially Ms. Michels and Ms. Scinto, and "Le Jazz Hot," which was a highlight of the film, exceeded my expectations. It is grand entertainment in typical Artistry style, and exercised my laugh muscles more than anything I'd seen on stage in some time.
Victor/Victoria, through May 5, 2019, at Artistry, Schneider Theater, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $43.00 - $46.00; Seniors (Age 62 and up): $38.00 - $41.00; Next Generation (age 30 and under): $15.00. "Pay What You Can" performance on Monday, April 15. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Book: Blake Edwards; Music: Henry Mancini; Lyrics: Leslie Bricusse; Additional Music: Frank Wildhorn; Director and Choreographer: Michael Matthew Ferrell; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Set and Lighting Design: Jeff Brown; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Wig and Makeup Design: Paul Bigot; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Fight Choreographer/Apache Dance Consultant: Annie Enneking; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Associate Director - Choreographer: Krysti Wiita; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Kaeli Melin.
Cast: Shana Eisenberg (Madame Roget/Miss Selmer/Eliza), Emily Grodzik (Cosmetics President/ Chambermaid/Reporter/Wealthy Middle-Aged Woman), Rich Hamson (Toddy), Brandon A. Jackson (Andre Cassell), Ann Michels (Victoria Grant/Victor), Charlie Morgan (Percy/Gregor/Klaus/Simon/Juke), Shad Olsen (King Marchan), France A. Roberts (Richard Dinardo/Bernard/Fredrik/Clam), Emily Scinto (Norma Cassidy), Eric Smedsrud (Squash Bernstein), Craig Turino (Sal Andretti), Leslie Vincent (Henrietta LaBisse). Ensemble: Dorian Brooke, Julie Hatlestad, Anna Hickey, Caleb Michael, Jeffrey c. Nelson, Adam Rousar, Hailey Starr Sowden, Elly Stahlke.