"Onward Victoria" loses ground so steadily that after awhile it seems to be going backward. Last night's musical at the Beck, though a handsomely costumed period piece, elevates sluggishness to a form of art.
Funny thing is, its heroine is the fire-eating late 19th-century feminist Victoria Woodhull, a figure one would suppose could propel a piece of stagecraft full speed ahead. In this instance, however, our Victoria sets the woman's movement back two-and-a-half hours each performance.
To begin with (and I wish we could let the matter drop right here), the writers of the book and lyrics, Charlotte Anker and Irene Rosenberg, have made Mrs. Woodhull (there is no Mr. Woodhull; the two have long since broken up when we meet her) so thoroughly uninviting an individual - indeed, such a blamed nuisance - that her laudable stands on the rights of her sex and her farsighted pronouncements are like boomerangs. "Free love, free speech, free thought," proclaim the banners of her supporters, and possibly considering the other available freedoms, several members of Friday's preview audience opted for the freedom of the streets at intermission.
The career of Victoria, closely accompanied by her sister Tennessee Claflin, is considered in the period 1871-72 when, both women in their 30s, they founded their weekly sheet advocating women's rights and other reforms, and Victoria became the People's Party candidate for President. The interminable evening ends with the sisters forsaking New York for England after falling out of favor here.
Not content with concentrating on these stirring matters, the authors have played fast and loose with public figures. Sister Tennie, for example, is shown turning down a marriage proposal by a lovesick Cornelius Vanderbilt (the formidable "commodore" was by 1871 nearing the end of a long life). But most attention is devoted to a passionate affair between Victoria and the celebrated anti-slavery minister Henry Ward Beecher who, though actually in his 60s at the time covered, is presented as a young and stupendously accomplished philanderer. Beecher's trial for adultery, which ended with his acquittal, provides the climax to a show that by now seems to have transferred a good part of its interest from Vickie to Henry.
The song lyrics are bad enough in themselves, but Keith Herrmann's score, though deftly orchestrated by Michael Gibson, is of absolutely no help. It momentarily clambers out of a prevailing dreariness (accentuated by a fake complexity) only in a moderately enlivening first-act finale ("Unescorted Women") set in Delmonico's restaurant (with designer William Ritman's staircase entrance, the least Herrmann might have provided us with was a "Hello, Vickie!" waiters' greeting), and in a second-act solo ("Everyday I Do a Little Something for the Lord") for that valiant watchdog over vice and dirty mail, Anthony Comstock.
Given material lacking both focus and wit, or even the attainment of good solid hack work, the cast, miked to the last capped tooth, is left to flounder. Jill Eikenberry is game enough, heaven knows, and cuts a fine figure of a woman as Victoria, but she looks glum at times as if fully aware that hers is a lost cause. As her pert sister Tennie, the petite Beth Austin's piercing voice is raised to a screech in song by the amplification.
Michael Zaslow plays Beecher with poise and on a helpfully ironic note, and a scarecrow of a Jim Jensen makes an enthusiastic Comstock. Edmond Genest is an earnest Theodore Tilton, plaintiff in the famous Beecher-Tilton trial. The less said of the others, the better, excluding the familiarly dependable singing of the ensemble.
It may be said that Julianne Boyd, the over-all director, and Michael Shawn, responsible for the musical staging, have gone about their business with considerable sweep (at times, the ensemble seems to sweep about the stage like a snap-the-whip skate team). With a little more effort, they might happily have swept the stage clean. As things stand, Theoni V. Aldredge's gorgeously opulent period gowns are the show's most notable constituents, especially as lighted by Richard Nelson in Ritman's skeletal set.
What a torcher that Victoria Woodhull must have been!
She was the first woman stockbroker on Wall Street, the first woman to address Congress on the suffrage question, and the only woman to run five times for president of the U.S.
Onward Victoria, the musical biography that opened on Broadway last night at the Martin Beck Theater, dutifully chronicles these highlights in the extraordinary life of Victoria Woodhull. But it skips over them with a light and giddy step, landing squarely on a subject much dearer to its moronic little heart - the radical reformer's scandalous reputation as "The Priestess of Free Love."
By focusing on juicy sex and scandal - and airly relegating all that heavy political stuff to background color - Onward Victoria dedicates its soul to sophisticated and frivolous good fun. And fails miserably at it. Defeated by its dull score, leaden book, and miscast star, the show pays dearly for distorting its heroine into a love goddess and reducing her career to a few sappy romances.
Charlotte Anker and Irene Rosenberg have a legitimate right to feature Woodhull's controversial sexual views in their book and lyrics. Sexual politics was, after all, the lynchpin of her radical philosophy. Women would never achieve their full political rights, she argued, until they relinquished their Victorian-doll image and achieved sexual parity with men.
But where do they get off distorting historical fact? Without a smidgen of evidence (aside from an odd, undocumented claim from Woodhull), they have concocted a love affair between the pioneer feminist and the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, another famous reformer of the period.
Her career trivialized, her politics sensationalized, Woodhull has been handed to Jill Eikenberry to feminize. Cast rather obviously for her delicate, "ladylike" good looks (it wouldn't do, after all, for a love goddess to look like a mud fence), Eikenberry is a decent, as well as a comely actress.
But her tiny vocal apparatus and cool demeanor make a joke of Woodhull's renowned powers as a peppery orator. No woman would follow her to the powder room, let alone the barricades.
Under Julianne Boyd's primitive directorial skills, the rest of the cast seem quite content with the one-color-to-a-customer characterizations they've been dealt.
Michael Zaslow gives a simplistic sexy-dog reading to Preacher Beecher, who took the hot seat in the "Trial of the Century," when he was charged with seducing one of his married parishioners. Edmond Genest settles for a monochromatic characterization of weakness as Theodore Tilton, the poor devil who brought the infamous adultery charge that Beecher slithered out of.
Beth Austin, however, manages to warm the conventional saucy-wench caricature she's been handed for Tennessee Claflin, Woodhull's sister and partner. Although she's bedevilled by a scratchy singing voice, the actress projects an exuberant personality and a genuine comic-gift.
The rest of the supporting players either don't do enough to justify taking up rental space Theoni V. Aldredge's handsome period costumes, or else rely on one-note character-codes for their performances.
No, I haven't forgotten that a musical offers music as one of its virtues - but what is to be made of the curious sounds devised by Keith Herrmann? As purveyors of the authors' witless observations on the characters and their circumstances, the songs bear a terrible burden. Musically, they lack a distinctive style, and indeed stagger from Broadway-brassy to pretentiously-operatic to country-cornpone.
Of Michael Shawn's choreography little can be said because there's so little of it to be seen.
The show is not quite a total debacle. An occasional line has a witty bite. A few musical numbers hit their mark. And William Ritman's clever Victorian sets - are consistently amusing.
But none of it offsets the basic shabbiness of twisting history to make a buck on Broadway.
For most of the way, "Onward Victoria," the new musical at the Martin Beck, marches very peaceably to oblivion. This show looks like a dinner theater's home-grown answer to "Hello, Dolly!," and it's becalmed almost to a fault. You want a good night's sleep? Pay your money and rest in peace.
But late in Act II, a strange event occurs. In a seemingly bland newsboy song called "Read It in the Weekly," the chorus boys suddenly and inexplicably go berserk. The number begins conventionally enough: In the time-honored tradition of musical comedy newsboys, those at the Beck are all smiles as they hawk their wares. Yet their dance steps gradually become more and more maniacal until finally these fellows look like demonic puppets being jerked about by some unseen, angry madman. What's going on? It's hard to say for sure, but "Onward Victoria" just may be the first Broadway musical to suffer a nervous breakdown.
If so, that's the evening's only distinction. This show casts a pall over the audience from the moment the curtain rises on William Ritman's gray, threadbare set, and the whole enterprise slides effortlessly downhill from there. Charlotte Anker and Irene Rosenberg, who collaborated on the book and lyrics, do have good intentions: Their musical aspires to be a feminist entertainment about the life and times of the provocative 19th-century suffragist Victoria Woodhull. The final result, however, is unlikely to speed passage of the equal rights amendment.
"Onward Victoria" is about what happens when Victoria (Jill Eikenberry) and her sister Tennie (Beth Austin) arrive in New York in 1871 to preach the gospel of female equality and free love. In two years, the heroine manages to set up a successful Wall Street brokerage, seduce the preacher Henry Beecher (Michael Zaslow), run for President and testify in a "trial of the century." While these incidents are based on historical fact and speculation, not a one of them is credible in "Onward Victoria." This is the kind of show in which real-life figures like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton can't be told apart without the Playbill. Victoria and Tennie are so thinly and farcically characterized that they could pass for yesteryear's answer to television's Laverne and Shirley.
The book and lyrics battle to a stand-off as they attempt to top each other in witlessness. The script is full of hoary double-entendre jokes and sweaty liaisons that are apparently intended to dramatize Victoria's then-pioneering view of female sexuality. Such is the flat, smirky tone of the writing that the heroine comes off as a pioneering vulgarian instead. The songs, which have been inserted willy-nilly, contain some memorable verses: "I'll strip the mask away from your sad masquerade" and "We always crucify our prophets / Keeping our guillotine ready to slice" and the all too appropriate "I've had a taste of forever and it was too long." One of the odder numbers is delivered by the anti-smut crusader Anthony Comstock as he pops in to sing of the joys of banning books. No sooner is "Oedipus Rex" rhymed with "perverted sex" then we get the couplet "I knew it was a shabby drama / When I heard what that king did to his momma."
The music that accompanies these sentiments is hard to judge, especially given the tinny miking and crude orchestrations. On a couple of occasions, Keith Herrmann, the composer, does indicate that he may have the talent to create a tune. Julianne Boyd's direction and Michael Shawn's choreography are, respectively, laughable and lame. Almost every scene looks the same - like a static tea party populated by mannequins - and an uncommon number of them end with characters embracing. Though Theoni V. Aldredge has designed some inventive costumes out of beautiful fabrics, they're shrouded by Richard Nelson's funereal lighting scheme.
Miss Eikenberry and Mr. Zaslow, the stars of the evening, have proved themselves charming performers in other circumstances. Here they're just victims, stuck in nonroles. It's typical of the show's confusions that they are required to burst into a regretful love duet only moments after they've expressed their undying hatred for each other in a courtroom. Shortly after that, the musical comes to its eagerly awaited conclusion - in which Victoria, humiliated and rejected, at long last flees New York. Don't be surprised if history repeats itself very soon.