A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, and they all look just like Liza Minnelli. Audiences are in for no surprises – or disappointments, for that matter – in Minnelli’s monthlong stint replacing Julie Andrews in Broadway’s “Victor/Victoria.” Minnelli isn’t the type of actress to disappear into a character: The character disappears into her, and for “Victor/Victoria” that’s not necessarily bad. An unexceptional star vehicle that has always given its star too little vehicle, the musical relies almost entirely on the personal appeal of its leading lady, and Minnelli has that.
While Andrews plays Victoria Grant (on stage as in the 1982 film) as a refined lady down on her luck in 1930s Paris, Minnelli is, well, less refined. Imagine “Cabaret’s” Sally Bowles, vulnerable bon vivant, latching onto the drag queen scam and you get the idea.
The ploy generally works well, particularly in the early scenes where Andrews’ world-weariness is replaced with Minnelli’s nervous energy, although some dramatic payoff is sacrificed: Try as she might, Minnelli can’t hide the razzle-dazzle spirit that is her stage persona, and one is hard-pressed to imagine her Victoria anywhere near the end of her rope.
Nor will anyone believe that Minnelli could be mistaken for a man – the slicked-back hair and tux notwithstanding. Then again, the plausibility of the gender switch has never been “V/V’s” strong point. Andrews made up for it by giving the character a statuesque androgyny, lending at least a little credence to the confusion felt by King Marchan (Michael Nouri), a tough-guy Chicago gangster who finds himself falling in love with the seemingly male Victor.
Although there’s virtually no sexual chemistry between Minnelli and Nouri (and given the differences in height, they’re a rather silly looking pair), Minnelli compensates by infusing the show with her trademark panache. Although the big production number “Le Jazz Hot” is better served by Andrews’ wider vocal range, a new song by Leslie Bricusse called “Who Can I Tell?” (replacing Andrews’ “Crazy World”) gives Minnelli a standard pop ballad so suitable to her talents that the song likely will take a spot in Minnelli’s concert repertoire for years to come. Her performance of the song here virtually justifies the entire star-replacement gambit.
The show itself remains an uneasy blend of forced sophistication and more forced slapstick, courtesy of director Blake Edwards. Instructing Minnelli to grab her crotch in an ill-advised gesture of machismo is as tasteless and unfunny as it is historically inappropriate.
After more than a year on Broadway, the production itself is holding up well, with Tony Roberts still appealing in his role as Victoria’s mentor, Toddy, and Rachel York still scene-stealing as the supremely tacky gangster’s moll Norma (although one might have hoped that she would have stopped imitating the film’s Lesley Ann Warren by now). Nouri has yet to find a way to make the blandly written King Marchan character less bland. Gregory Jbara as the gentle-demeanored bodyguard continues to lend fine support.
Fortunately producers have long since excised the execrable “Louis Says” production number, shaving the show’s running time by about 10 minutes (to 2 hours, 35 minutes). The Balloon Buffoon, a novelty bit in which a woman auditioning at the nightclub crawls inside a giant balloon, has been reinstated from an earlier version of the musical and makes for a brief, cute diversion.
The dancing ensemble remains sharp, bringing the energy and crisp movement that does a nice job disguising the fact that the choreographic requirements on the star (whether Minnelli or Andrews) are somewhat less strenuous. As for Minnelli’s much-reported-on hip surgery, audiences will see no evidence in the star’s performance.