In Julie's shadow
Victor/Victoria misses the mark
by Robert von Stein Redick
I have stumbled on the most original stance imaginable for reflecting
on Victor/Victoria: I have never seen Julie Andrews in the title
role(s). Whether this proves an advantage or a handicap may hinge on whether you find the tale's unusual journey from screen to stage
intriguing or merely a not-so-clever device for returning its 60-year-old star
to Broadway. There can be little question that it was a device: both the
1982 hit film and the short-lived, much-debated 1996 musical starred Andrews as
Victoria Grant, a penniless English singer adrift in 1930s Paris, who rockets
to stardom by impersonating a female impersonator. Both were directed by her
husband, Blake Edwards. But there's no sign that the couple took the segue to
stage for anything less than the challenge it is: Edwards roped in Henry
Mancini (his old Pink Panther collaborator) to compose the lively if
unenchanting score, while the erstwhile Mary Poppins sported a voice that could
still (as the script demands) plausibly shatter glass.
The excitement was immense, and brief. The Tony Awards passed
Victor/Victoria by; an embittered Andrews developed a throat condition;
the show folded in a hush. Other actresses took the play on the road.
The current Victoria is Anne Kanengeiser, who debuted with the Maine State
Music Theatre last week. Like other successors, Kanengeiser performs in the
tangible shadow of Andrews, a task about as enviable as covering U2 in Dublin.
No matter its history, the title role demands to be played to the hilt. When
Victoria stumbles into the tinsel-and-satin nightclub, soaked through and
frumpy in an absurd turquoise dress, Kanengeiser's woe is convincing enough,
though the suavity of her benefactor Carroll Todd (John-Charles Kelly) is more
so. "Toddy" is the club's immaculately proper emcee. He has just opened the
show with the moderately seductive "Paris by Night," strolling among a dozen
androgynous dancers in skintight tanks and the odd champagne-sipping,
cigarette-waving patron. His defense of Victoria begins with a bluffing match
with his boss (Benjamin H. Salinas) over her talents; his unflappable smile
does not fade even when the latter dismisses both Victoria's singing and Toddy
himself from his job.
The production's troubles begin back at Toddy's flat. Now we're ready to
discover the true Victoria -- at the cabaret she is scarcely allowed to speak.
Redressed in a man's striped pajamas, short hair combed back in the style of
the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox, she does look the part: androgynous, starry-eyed,
strong. This is her chance to sing from her ironic depths, to skewer the
man-centered world that's let her down. But Kanengeiser simply does not fill
the moment with herself. "If I Were a Man" sounds strained and uncertain;
Victoria's punch to the nose of Toddy's jealous ex-lover (Will Woodrow) might
have been performed in a swimming pool.
Here and throughout the evening, it's Kelly who springs to the rescue. The idea
to remake Victoria as "Count Victor" is his, and so is most of the passion
about the deceit. Kanengeiser's failure to project stands out all the more
against Kelly's excitement -- but not because his part is overplayed. "The
trick for a drag queen is to act like a woman, which very few can," he sings.
Increasingly, we come to believe him, even though the queen in question really
is a woman.
The dilemma continues during "Victor's" dance numbers. It does make one's head
spin, though not perhaps as director Bruce Lumpkin intends. Playing a woman
struggling to seem a man struggling to seem a woman (still with me?),
Kanengeiser holds back. When dancing, she does not flaunt her femininity, as a
knockout transvestite will. When her gangster love-interest King Marchon (a
leaden Mark Jacoby) appears and voices his doubt that she's really a man, she
declines as well to enact masculinity. Perhaps she fears succeeding too well in
both? If so it is a pity: what we hunger for is more evidence that her lie
could bewitch Paris, not reminders that she is not all she seems.
Further distraction from this central weakness takes the form of the congenial
Squash (Ed Romanoff), Marchon's bodyguard and a sexual secret-keeper himself;
and Norma Cassidy (the exquisite Beth Glover), King's fragile and perfectly
brainless piece of blond arm-candy, whose "Paris Makes Me Hawrny" strikes the
most genuine note of the evening.
But alas, the unintended distractions drew more comment among the patrons as we
filed out -- including the most excruciating gaffe I've ever witnessed on
stage: a 10-minute, yard-wide view through misplaced flats, where oblivious
stage hands wandered, bickered, and generally shattered any illusion that we
were elsewhere than Brunswick. It would be wrong to draw many conclusions from
these first-evening accidents. About as wrong as omitting to mention them: the
play simply ceases for as long as we're forced to wonder if the nightclub decor
is about to crash onto the dancers' heads.
Still, the play remains Kanengeiser's trumpet, to wind fully or flat. Without
mentioning the first Victoria by name again, I submit that our current
transvestite has all it takes to make us forget her predecessor. Her voice
could shatter glass, if raised to do so. One hopes it will be.
Victor/Victoria plays through July 8 at the Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin
College campus in Brunswick. Call (207) 725-8769.
Robert von Stein Redick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.