A Woman Impersonating a Man Impersonating a Woman? Who Would Believe It?

Cross-dressing performers are such entertaining subjects, especially for musicals. Recently on Broadway we’ve seen “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert“, and cross-dressing performances are at the heart of shows such as “Hairspray” and “Chicago“. Back in the 1980s, there was another property in the mix, “Victor/Victoria“, directed by Blake Edwards with his signature comedy touch. In 1995, the property was resurrected as a moderately-successful Broadway musical, with book by Edwards, music by Henry Mancini and Frank Wildhorn, and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn. Blake Edwards, a long-time Malibu resident, died in 2010, and the Malibu Stage Company decided to remember him by producing “Victor/Victoria” this season. It opened Friday night, and we were there for the second performance last night.

MSC summarizes the show on their webpage as follows: “A penniless soprano, named Victoria, colludes with a struggling gay impressario (Toddy) to disguise herself as a man named Victor, who entertains as a female impersonator known as “Victoria”- and as a result becomes the toast of Paris. Complications arise when a Chicago mobster (King Marchon), his moll (Norma Cassidy), and bodyguard (Squash Bernstein) sees the act and finds himself attracted to the star.” That’s essentially the show, although they forgot to end with the line “Comedy then ensures, and happiness is found in the end.” I could provide a more detailed synopsis, but for shows like this such a synopsis can ruin the story; instead, if you want a detailed synopsis, I’ll point you to the movie wikipage.

MSC’s production opened with a tribute to Blake Edwards by Richard Johnson, the director and producer. This included a very nice opening speech, and an attempt at a video tribute. I say attempt, because the projector was initially aimed low, and the projection screen material made things difficult to see. This was a harbinger of technical problems to come; more on that later. From what we could see, the video appeared well done; as soon as the projection issues are ironed out, this should make for a nice start of the evening.

The production then started, and as usual, we can look at it from a number of different angles: story, acting, music, and technical. So let’s begin.

The story itself is a good and funny one. It ends with a message that is as relevant today as it was when the show was first produced: that we need to accept people for who they are, and people should be free to love whomever they choose to love. The story translates well to the stage. What hurts the musical at times are weak lyrics (for which I blame Bricusse and Wildhorn), but luckily those are few. In general, this is an enjoyable study. Further, it is executed well by Richard Johnson, the director. He moves the people well and makes good use of the stage, although at times it was clear that more rehearsal was clearly needed (both in terms of line familiarity and blocking to avoid the curtain). These problems are something I believe will go away as the show continues performances, so don’t let that be a deterrant. I particularly noted the quality of the direction in a scene that cried “Blake Edwards”, when in the second act, everyone was chasing everyone, in and out of doors, under beds, through windows. This was effective and funny and is difficult to do right. This director did. This is what makes me look past the occasional rough edges: there’s a diamond here folks, and it just needs a little polishing. Johnson was assisted by Diane Carroll. Choreography was by Albertossy Espinoza (assisted by Natalie Rubenstein), who developed some very effective dance numbers for the MSC space.

A lot of this comes from the actors. These folks worked well with the director to bring these comic characters to life. In the top tier were Jake Broderæ as Toddy and Julia Hollandæ as Victor/Victoria. Broder was great. He infused Toddy with a likeable and lovable personality; you warmed to him instantly. He had an infectuous charm, and was just fun to watch. I was initially cold to Holland’s Victoria; she seemed a little old, and didn’t what I expected. But she won me over: her performances worked well, although you still would not have thought there was a man under that woman’s face. That’s an issue of small mannerisms and voice, and may improve over time. But her singing was delightful, and her comic timing was excellent.

Supporting the two leads were excellent supplemental leads: Butch Andersonas King Marchon, Kristin Towers-Rowlesæ as Norma Cassidy, and Oscar Best as Squash Bernstein. All of these actors made their characters into people and had fun with their roles (although Norma Cassidy is an exaggerated character to begin with). All sang well; all moved well; all were personable, and all were a joy to watch perform.

Moving into the supporting and ensemble tier, there were a few notable performances. I particularly enjoyed Don Pitts as Andre Cassell/Juke, and Richard Van Slykeæ as Richard/Clam. Rounding out this tier were Anibel Silveyraæ (Henri Labisse/Chorus), George Fisher (Sal Andretti/Gregor), Bonnie Frank (Cosmetics Pres./Mme. Roget/Chambermaid), Diane Petersonæ (Miss Selmer), MarLee Candell (Jazz Singer / Guest 1 / Chorus / Dancer), Emilia Vitti (Flower Lady / Guest 2), Allison Williams (Chorus / Dancer), Albertossy Espinoza (Reporter / Diviant Husband / Lead Dancer), Milva Rinaldelli (Dancer), Steven W. Nielsen (Dancer / Male Dance Captain), Colby Nielsen (Dancer), Jona (Dancer), Elizabeth Bortnem (Dancer), Lili Kay (Dancer), and Ako Eyong (Policeman). In general, all of the dancers were strong and fun to watch. When I look at dancers, I look for the enjoyment and joy at what they were doing. At a few times, I noticed more focus on the steps than the joy. This is an example of a problem that was common in this production: it needed more rehearsal. The line hesitations and occasional misstarts, the focus on getting the steps right instead of enjoying the dance, and the technical problems I’ll get to in a minute are all symptomatic of underrehearsal. That’s also good news, for that means that subsequent performances will be better, and these occasional missteps shouldn’t be a deterrant.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Musically, the performance was excellent (although, to my taste, they could have used more brass, but I always think there should be more horns). The band, under the musical direction of Scott Nagatani on piano, with David Lamont (Keyboard 2 / Flute), Matt Clark (Bass), and Danny Yamamoto (Drums) was excellent. Live music is one of the best things about live musical theatre.

Turning to the technical: it is here where we had problems. MSC has a new house curtain, and they were taking advantage of it to change scenery behind the curtain while acting took place in front of the curtain. Unfortunately, these scene changes were noisier than they should have been. This is something that will improve with practice; alas, that practice should have been before opening night. But this is what happens some times with small local production companies. It was distracting, but not major. The set itself by Ralph Romo was simple and functional—this is a hallmark of small theatres, although some (in particular REP East, seemingly do miracles on small budgets). The use of Murphy Beds was a clever way to utilize the space. The props by Nancy Little also worked well. The costumes (designed by Danielle Horn, in consultation with Deborah LaGorce-Kramer) were, for the most part, good. I was puzzled at times by the occasional bare feet on dancers wearing elegant costumes, and the odd undercostume visibility at points. The hair and makeup (by Beverly Heusser and Megan Keossaian) were good, although the actors seems to have problems with the hats at times. More problematic was the sound design of Ricardo Means, with sound effects by Terence Davis and Great American Music. I understand the sound system is new; it was introduced last year. Still, there were numerous microphone problems, feedback, microphone bumps and noise—all of which were distracting, and all of which should have been worked out during rehearsal. Again, this is the same problem as mentioned above, and should get better in future performances. The lighting design of Jamie Van Soelen was reasonably well, although the follow spot needed a pinch of work. Program design was by Carla Marlenee Bates. Marti Maniates was production assisstant. Ako Eyong was stage manager. The “Tribute to Blake Edwards” was directed by Ernie Brandon.

In summary: The MSC production of “Victor/Victoria” is a good production and has the bones for a great production. The transition will occur as this team has more performances under its belt. Luckily, the show continues through December 4, giving them time to make this spectacular by the end. Go see it; you’ll enjoy it. Tickets are available through the box office at 310-589-1998, through Brown Paper Tickets, and potentially through Goldstar Events.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: November starts with The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT on November 5. The following weekend brings “Day Out With Thomas” at Orange Empire (We’re working Veterans Day). I haven’t booked theatre for that weekend or the next yet, as I was waiting to see what happened with OERM and Erin’s birthday. Veteran’s Day weekend brings Sylvia” at the Edgemar Center for Performing Arts in Santa Monica on Saturday 11/12; the following weekend brings “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on its opening night, November 19. Karen will also be seeing “Riverdance” at the Pantages on November 16. I’m still waiting to ticket “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson (held for November 25, pending ticketing, hottix on sale for our block on November 8). Thanksgiving weekend also brings the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. The first weekend of December is lost preparing for ACSAC, although I might squeeze in something on Saturday. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The remainder of December is unscheduled, but I’m sure we’ll fill things in for Winter Break. Of course, there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January, right now, is completely open, although the first show of the REP East season will likely be in there somewhere. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.