The Gallery Players, Brooklyn's acclaimed theater company, typically mounts outstanding productions in its intimate venue, but the group wobbles a little with its latest effort, an uneven revival of the gender-bending romantic comedy Victor/Victoria. The show opened on Broadway in the mid-90s and played over 700 performances, thanks no doubt to its venerable star, the incomparable Julie Andrews. And what fun it must have been to see Andrews, the prim and proper ingénue of Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music, transform herself into a drag queen. Or, to put it in the musical's terms, "a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman."
If that sounds confusing, it's because it is, and the charade quickly loses steam, particularly in this sluggish production. The title character (well, the female half) is Victoria, a down on her luck American girl who stumbles into the path of an enterprising showman in a 1930s Paris nightclub. Toddy, who soon reveals that he is gay, takes her under his wing (and into his flat), where she dons the pajamas of his former lover. When the disgruntled rogue arrives to collect his belongings, he mistakes Victoria for a man, and Toddy has a brilliant idea: turn Victoria into "Victor," a talented, irresistible, and all too authentic cross-dressing act.
Feigning a "relationship" and sharing a bed, Toddy and Victoria crop her hair and dress her in a suit to create an enigmatic showman named Victor—taking the town, as they say, by storm. Terse questions about gender authenticity and problematic romantic interludes soon intervene and disrupt the show, most crucially when Victoria falls for King Marchan, who seems to be falling for her, or rather for Victor, as well. Victor/Victoria, like the much more dignified La Cage Aux Folles before it, aims both to celebrate and question how and why we fall in love.
In the hands of Blake Edwards (book) and Leslie Bricusse (lyrics), however, there's little substance to ground us in the plot. Lyrics like "There's no question he's a most attractive guy/The trouble is, so am I!" and "Though I don't even know him/I know him so well" fail to transform this gender subversion into meaningful material. Instead, the show becomes a trifle in which the characters are, for the most part, cartoons.
With its thin plot, Victor/Victoria depends heavily on its production numbers, and Stacy Moscotti Smith has created splashy and often witty choreography to accompany Henry Mancini's brassy, jazzy, ebullient score (played with flair by the small, but terrific, orchestra, led by Justin Hatchimonji).
But although director Matt Schicker has assembled an excellent ensemble of dancers, his leading lady lacks the charisma to infuse this production with electricity. The draw of the award-winning original production was surely its star's ability to channel a certain je ne sais quoi that made her/him irresistible to both men and women. Christine Paterson sings prettily, dances well, and breaks into a stunning smile at all the right cues, but she lacks, at least in this role, the smoldering presence that drives audiences wild. In a pleasant, poised, but rather bland performance, she gets lost in the glitzy swirl of the other dancers, when all eyes should stay involuntarily focused on her.
The other leads don't do much better. Thomas Poarch offers an appealing but wilted take on the King, and John Blaylock's Toddy is a lovably droll, if somewhat hollow, incarnation of Henry Higgins transforming his Eliza Doolittle.
In fact, almost every time the dancing stops, the energy also evaporates, and weak (often nearly inaudible) singing plagues the production throughout. The overambitious and problematic scenery also contributes its share to the problems, with awkward and near-catastrophic set changes that draw focus from the performers.
The exception to all of this is Allison Guinn, whose wise-cracking, fearless take on Marchan's dimwitted girlfriend Norma is a diamond in the rough. Only Guinn takes the production to its appropriately gauche level, and she sells the material for all it's worth. A sure-witted comedian, she scores first with the bawdy "Paris Makes Me," an ode to the city's decadence.
Later, she stops the show with the uproarious nightclub number "Chicago, Illinois." A crass and clumsy kewpie doll, she hurls herself across the stage with unabashed moxie, every twist of her hips and flick of her wrist a specific window into her character. In this production, the show should almost be renamed Norman/Norma.
Tainted with forced innuendo and oversimplified gender banter, Victor/Victoria can best be appreciated as a slight confection and, perhaps, a wispy excuse to dance up a storm. It's refreshing to see the often serious-minded Gallery Players take on a more fun and frivolous project, but here's hoping that their next effort, whether deep or ditzy, will deliver the polished quality of entertainment their audiences have come to expect.