Neither good enough to generate any excitement beyond the reappearance of a beloved star, nor bad enough to make it one for the books — it’s no “Carrie”–“Victor/Victoria” is instead that particularly dispiriting species of Broadway invalid, the earnestly crafted but utterly joyless affair.
With the demise of “Busker Alley, “”Victor/Victoria” became the sole new book musical of the fall season. That fact, and Julie Andrews’ return to the Broadway stage after three decades’ absence, have conspired to bring the show to the starting gate with an impressive advance in excess of $ 15 million, a figure unmatched by any other American musical. Andrews has stated her commitment to stay with “Victor/Victoria” until the producers — including her husband, the show’s director, Blake Edwards — have recouped their $ 8.5 million investment. If so, she is going to be around for a very long time, because the show will notsoon return its capitalization. Andrews reprises her role from Edwards’ 1982 film, set in Paris in the ’30s, about Victoria Grant, a down-on-her-luck singer who finds fame as a drag queen: a she playing a he impersonating a she. Victoria’s mentor and the architect of her transformation is the dauntless Carroll Todd –“Toddy” (a strikingly smooth and uncampy, if also somewhat bland Tony Roberts in the Robert Preston part).
Things go smashingly for this odd couple until the arrival of Chicago club owner King Marchan (James Garner in the film, the soigne Michael Nouri here), who finds himself so attracted to “Victor” that he can’t believe “he” isn’t a she.
Rounding things out are Marchan’s girlfriend, Norma (the spectacular Rachel York, outdoing the equally inspired LesleyAnn Warren in the film), a bubble-brained beauty given to unlikely malapropisms and stunning vulgarities including an ants-in-her-pants number, “Paris Makes Me Horny,” whose title says just about everything you need to know. And, finally, Marchan’s bodyguard, Squash (Alex Karras in the film, here Greg Jbara, a lovable gentle bear of an actor), who falls for Toddy.
“Victor/Victoria” gets off onthe wrong foot and rarely recovers. Starting with a listless overture and a tired production number (“Paris by Night” for Toddy and a drag ensemble), the musical fails to establish what the film did so movingly: that Victoria is at the end of her rope, bedraggled, despairing and terribly hungry. Her very real need imbues everything that happens with a compelling poignancy that served as counterpoint to the comedy. All of that is fatally glossed over in the second scene, when Toddy takes her under his wing; as a result, the show lacks urgency.
It doesn’t have much comedy, either. Aside from a sprightly tango she dances with Norma that’s supposed to prove to Marchan that Victor’s a man, Andrews never seems to be enjoying herself — certainly not the way she so obviously was two seasons back in “Putting It Together,” an Off Broadway revue of Stephen Sondheim songs, in which she was first among equals in an ensemble that also introduced York.
Four of the six songs written for the film by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse remain in the musical. Several more were written before Mancini’s death last year, though some have been dropped since the show began its tryout tour in June. Composer Frank Wildhorn has contributed three new numbers, including “Living in the Shadows,” an Act 2 anthem for Victoria.
The lyrics are witless — they’re the only truly awful aspect of the show — with ticky-tack rhymes along the lines of “Paris has mystery/That has haunted us through history.”
And a key problem (literally so) that separates the musical from the film is that because Andrews is pretending to be a man playing a woman, the songs tend to be in contralto keys that don’t show off a soprano of legendary beauty. Making matters worse, at a critics’ preview, Andrews was frequently flat.
The finale, “Victor/Victoria,” might generously be called an homage to “One,” from “A Chorus Line,” not only because of the company outfitted in glittering white tuxedos, top hatsand canes, but because of the lyric, too (“Victoria, what a victor you are”). The only singular sensation here is one of disappointment. Even the show’s pansexual message — summed up in Squash’s “It’s not a crime to love each other”– seems slightly warmed over.
The lighted stairway in that finale also recalls the one Jules Fisher used in “The Will Rogers Follies,” though his work here (with collaborator Peggy Eisenhauer) is richer and more varied. Willa Kim, another “Will Rogers” alumna, contributes plenty of similarly kitschy costumes here. But Robin Wagner has supplied a first-class stage design, the centerpiece of which is the side-by-side luxe hotel suites taken by King and Norma and the newly rich Toddy and Victoria.
Edwards has staged the show with cinematic efficiency, but with neither the flair nor the edge that characterizes his movies. Ditto the lackluster dance numbers by Rob Marshall, who seems to be everywhere these days — a thin talent stretched even thinner.
For the record (and since the program makes no mention of it), both the musical and the Edwards film were adaptations of a 1933 German film, Reinhold Schunzel’s “Viktor und Viktoria,” remade two years later by British director Victor Savile as “First a Girl.”
Whatever insurance that $ 15 million advance provides isn’t likely to overcome audience letdown. “Victor/Victoria” has a lot in common with “My Favorite Year,””Nick & Nora,””The Goodbye Girl” and “The Red Shoes,” earlier ’90 s film-to-musical transfers that were similarly DOA. Though Andrews, Roberts and company are doing their damndest up there to make “Victor/Victoria” sing, it never does. It’s just no fun at all.