If looks were everything, “Victor/Victoria” would be a “10.” But in the first of several tryout stands before a Broadway opening in October, this $ 8.5 million adaptation of Blake Edwards’ 1982 romantic comedy fails to impress as much more than a movie dressed up as a lavish musical with pretensions. Notwithstanding a solid dramatic — if not musical — performance from Julie Andrews, the show has a long way to go. To be sure, “Victor/Victoria” is a first-class entertainment package, a glitzy, show-stopping wonderama of stage craftsmanship. But looks aren’t everything, and deep down, where things really count, the show suffers from an identity crisis as treacherous and disconcerting as anything its characters must face.
Edwards and company have adhered all too faithfully to the movie’s story of a down-on-her-luck soprano who finds fame, fortune and (somewhat problemat-ically) love while pretending to be a male drag queen. The plot has been trimmed, creating some logistical problems that Edwards, lyricist Leslie Bricusse and the late composer Henry Mancini too often solve with introspective talk-songs that inevitably stop the show in its tracks.
In between the jokes (most of which will be familiar to the film’s fans) and those tuneless (not to say entirely witless) musical meditations are the big production numbers, which are impressive. Victor’s debut, the sizzling “Le Jazz Hot,” is a brassy, slinky tribute to New Orleans jazz, choreographed by Rob Marshall with tremendous energy.
An 18th-century retro-chic salute to style over substance, “Attitude,” featuring more pastel feathers, pompadours and spangles than Wayne Newton and Elvis combined, is a definite eye-popper. And the closing anthem, “Victor/Victoria,” while musically disastrous, is the most dazzling collection of white tuxedos and gold lapels this side of “A Chorus Line,” whose finale it too closely resembles.
Except for the appropriately crass “Chicago, Illinois,” sung by Norma Cassidy (Rachel York), however, most of those production numbers seem ridiculous in the context of the story. Though they’re supposed to showcase Andrews’ character, Victor, as a great female impersonator, all they really do is divert attention from her.
Andrews too often gets lost in the blizzards of whirling choreography and, truth to tell, she doesn’t move with as much grace or verve as the lithe company surrounding her. The smaller, leaner, Andrews-less dance numbers work much better, particularly “Apache,” a moody mock S&M number that’s hip, gay and erotic.
People who come to hear Andrews sing are likely to walk away disappointed. Few of the songs are worthy of the star’s still extraordinary voice: Most are keyed too low in her range — she is pretending to be a man, after all — or not very interesting musically. Thus Andrews, owner of one of the most remarkable larynxes on the planet, is all but wasted in such subpar ditties as “Crazy World” and “I Guess It’s Time.”
The good news is that dramatically, Andrews delivers an endearing and witty performance as Victoria, then Victor, and vice-versa, back-and-forth. Though she can’t improve the songs, the star has an inimitable way of bringing even the most questionable book material up to her level.
The same goes for the rest of the cast, all of whom find ways to add vitality and humor where it doesn’t necessarily exist. As Victoria’s gay friend, Toddy, Tony Roberts is considerably funnier than his movie counterpart, the late Robert Preston. Roberts doesn’t overdo Toddy’s gayness, and he has the comic chops to find the humorous vein in almost all of his lines.
The entire cast is more believable and engaging than the film cast, including Michael Nouri as King Marchan, the gangster who falls in love with Victoria and is convinced she is a woman; Gregory Jbara as Squash, Marchan’s bodyguard; and Richard B. Shull as the agent/promoter Andre Cassell.
But if anyone stands to turn involvement with “V/V” into stardom, it will be York, whose ditzy over-the-top performance as Norma Cassidy is a treat. Norma mangles the English language in much juicier and wittier ways than she did in the film (her part is also the most extensively rewritten one in the show), and her two musical numbers — the teasing “Paris Makes Me Horny” and the bawdy “Chicago, Illinois”– are both certified show-stealers.
Robin Wagner’s sets — among them a Parisian square, the nightclub Chez Lui and a phenomenal two-story jewel-box hotel decked out in cranberry and gold — are all exquisite.
But “Victor/Victoria” has a way to go before it hums on all cylinders, if indeed such humming is possible. Marshall’s choreography, much of which is very complex, still needs fine-tuning. So does Edwards’ staging. A farcical people-hiding-under-the-bed-and-whisking-themselves-in-and-out-of-doors scene in the hotel moves too slowly and deliberately to have the desired comical snap. The same goes for a clumsy fight scene in the Chez Lui.
More significantly, however, “Victor/Victoria” is a musical at odds with itself. In order to tell its story logically and artfully, the show stoppers need to be scaled down and reworked to give the title character — and the show’s star — occasion to shine.
But with so little room for musicals that don’t meet Broadway’s spectacle quotient, such changes may not seem practical — all but guaranteeing that the most important musical elements of the show will continue to clash, at times grotesquely, with what is essentially an intimate story.