Julie Andrews, who became a Broadway star 40 years ago in three musicals of great wit and elegance, has made her return in a vehicle worthy of Benny Hill.
Her husband, Blake Edwards, wrote and directed the film "Victor/Victoria" and has done the same for the stage version. The movie was mildly amusing, the musical barely so. What might have been a droll take on gender roles is so vulgar and stale even Milton Berle's drag numbers seem sophisticated by comparison.
The story is about Victoria, an English singer stranded in 1930s Paris. With the help of Toddy, a gay entertainer, she becomes an acclaimed female impersonator in other words, a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. She falls in love with a Chicago gangster whose craving for her is so intense he pursues her even though she appears to be a man.
The film profited from the immense charm of Robert Preston as the mentor and James Garner as the gangster. Tony Roberts and Michael Nouri play those roles here. Both are wonderful, but neither can surmount the material's tackiness.
The show has four of the songs Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse wrote for the film. Mancini died before this show went into production, and Frank Wildhorn has set some additional songs.
Bricusse's lyrics are pathetic. The gangster's moll, for example, has a song about the effect various world capitals have on her: "I schlepped to Stockholm/ And brought a lot of schlock home . . . When I see the Eiffel Tower/ I have to go and take a shower."
As a film composer, Mancini created background mood. Center stage, however, his music lacks power. It sounds like warmed-over Jerry Herman. All through the numerous nightclub sequences, I kept waiting for the chorus to break into "La Cage aux Folles," and on my way out, I found myself humming "Mame."
The plot is tenuous, and nothing about the way Edwards tells or stages it creates tension or interest. In Act II, for example, there is an extended sequence of door-slamming with a sight gag about a peeping Tom (the sort of thing with which Edwards lards his films). It all falls flat.
This is very sad because Andrews is in such great shape. She doesn't look any older than she did in "Camelot" 35 years ago. Her legs are fabulous. Her voice is still melting, her diction impeccable (no asset given Bricusse's lyrics). It's a waste of her talent.
Rachel York is sensational in the one-note role of the gangster's moll. Gregory Jbara is endearing as the gangster's sweet bodyguard.
Rob Marshall's choreography is energetic if not imaginative. Robin Wagner's sets evoke '30s Paris well.
Julie Andrews' return to Broadway should have been an occasion for champagne. "Victor/Victoria" is only worth breaking out a small beer.
It has long been apparent - at the very least as a cliche - that everyone's fair lady, Julie Andrews, could recite the Patagonia telephone directory, yellow pages and all, and make it into, the sound of music. But, surely no one, actually expected her to be put to such an acidulating test.
In fairness, the truly incredible, defiantly delightful Andrews is far from being the only good thing in her new starring vehicle, "Victor/Victoria," which opened at the Marquis Theater last night.
Indeed, the musical doesn't lack for much of anything, except for music and lyrics. But their absence, or at least their terrifying inadequacy, certainly proves a downer in what could otherwise be a perfectly up evening.
"Victor/Victoria" is one of those musicals based on a movie, in this case Blake Edwards' 1982 work of the same name, which, of course, also starred Andrews, his wife.
Based on a 1933 German film, "Viktor/Viktoria," it told the cautionary tale of a young singer in Paris who was persuaded by a friendly, aging homosexual cabaret star, to find fame, fortune and - rather more shakily - love by posing as a man posing as a woman singer in drag.
Gender bending, sexual identity, coming out of shadows and closets, although set in a somewhat unlikely '30s Paris, all provide good p.c. stuff for the '80s or '90s. And what might be obvious material has been handled by Edwards - first in his screenplay and now in this musical - with adroid and touching sensibility.
In a situation where all and sundry could have been conceived as crude stereotypes, you really care for the characters - something not that common in movies and and rarer in musicals.
Not only the gender-twisting Victoria (Andrews natch) but her grizzled and cuddly-gay manager, Toddy (Tony Roberts), and her gender-confused gangster lover, King (Michael Nouri), together with his Chicago floozie, Norma (Rachel York), and his former All-American bodyguard, Squash (Gregory Jbara) are people worth singing home about.
And their story with its pointedly sharp jokes, its blunt lesson and even its often over-contrived dragged-in musical numbers - is a true charmer. It's only the songs that tend to stick in the gullet.
One shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but the late Henry Mancini, of Pink Panther theme-fame, here has much to answer for and what he doesn't answer for can be laid at the door of the living composer brought in to help out, the inappropriately-named and excessively tame Frank Wildhorn, and the lyricist Leslie Bricusse.
Despite what many people seem to recall, the film was not actually a musical although it had musical numbers (by Mancini and Bricusse) - a couple of which are retained here. Nevertheless, this is virtually a brand-new score.
I can't quote the music in these pages, but here is a fair sample of Bricusse: "Paris is so sexy/Riding in a taxi/Gives me apoplexy...Paris makes me horny/Not like Californy." Enough, I trust, said.
After some years in this game, I cannot off hand think (and I have racked my offhand brains) of a worse musical number, in every respect possible, than Wildhorn and Bricusse's "Louis Says," which opens the second act. It should be videotaped and kept as an object-lesson for posterity.
Since Blake Edwards' own staging (seemingly his first theatrical assignment) has already been quite vigorously slammed in the New York press, it was a pleasure to note how assured it proved, although admittedly Rob Marshall's choreography (with its undertones of Tune and its overtones of Bennett) is not up to much.
Willa Kim's costumes are deliciously extravagant, but while Robin Wagner's Paris exteriors have a nice Utrillo look, his huge main setting of two art-deco, doll's-house-style hotel suites is too symmetrical for pleasure.
But anyway, apart from Edwards' admirable work, the cast is the thing, and the cast is superb.
As in the movie, Andrews not for one moment looks like a man (she always looks like one of those "trouser" acts such as Vesta Tilley, once a standby of the British music hall), and not for one moment does it matter. She has never been more totally enchanting. To see her, is to love her.
Nor is Andrews alone. Roberts is adorable, a great trouper who almost makes you forget Robert Preston in the movie; Nouri is bewitched, bothered and terrific; the sensational York would have stolen the musical had her colleagues not had it so carefully guarded; and the blissfully bluff Jbara can, as Toddy notes at the finale, even sing.
But then, if it's just singers you want, and don't care overmuch about the song they are singing, then "Victor/Victoria" should well prove victorious.
Thirteen years have passed since Blake Edwards made his cinematic chef d'oeuvre, "Victor/Victoria," but as far as Julie Andrews is concerned, 13 years is no more than the blink of an eye. That's gloriously apparent in Mr. Edwards's otherwise big, patchy stage adaptation, which opened last night at the Marquis Theater.
Ms. Andrews is reprising her most enchanting screen role, that of a woman who plays a man who plays a woman, thus to become the toast of 1930's Paris as a female impersonator. At 60, Ms. Andrews looks terrific and sings with a sweet purity not heard on Broadway since she last played the street in "Camelot." That was more than 30 years ago. Even as today's usually invidious sound amplification equipment can't distort her voice, time has made no dent in her immaculate appearance and diction, and in her grandly funny stage presence.
There's no mistaking her vitality in the middle of the first act: dressed in spangles from head to toe, her legs showing up to here, she tears into an elaborate singing and dancing number with such effortlessness you're convinced that all life is a ball. As it was in the movie, "Le Jazz Hot," the centerpiece of the Henry Mancini-Leslie Bricusse score, is one of this show's highlights. It's also the number with which Victor, nee Victoria Grant, brings Paris to its knees.
If local audiences aren't brain dead, New York will follow suit.
Yet Ms. Andrews is not alone on the stage. She's surrounded by a first-rate cast. Tony Roberts, Woody Allen's long-time straight man, plays Cornell Todd, called Toddy, the self-styled "aging queen" who has the inspiration to transform the waiflike Victoria into Victor, a cabaret performer described as "the rage of Poland." It's not easy stepping into the role that proved to be the brilliant climax of Robert Preston's screen career. Mr. Roberts won't make you forget Preston, but he's good and he's game.
Michael Nouri takes over as King Marchan, the Chicago mobster who, to his bewilderment, finds himself drawn to Victor. The part, which was played in the film by James Garner, has become a singing role. Mr. Nouri gets to deliver one of the better new songs, written by Mr. Mancini (who died last year) to augment the film score. Called "King's Lament," it's less a song than a rueful "talk" number in which King ponders the mystery that "The girl I'm in love with is a guy,"
Rachel York appears as Norma, King's syntax-mangling, platinum-haired doxy. She's a character whose lineage may go back to ancient Greece, though I was first aware of her in the person of Jean Harlow in James Cagney's "Public Enemy." Norma is not exactly a brand-new inspiration. Yet the character still works as Ms. York plays her, whether leading the jolly "Chicago, Illinois" nightclub number or commanding Squash (Gregory Jbara), King's bodyguard: "Outta my way, pheasant!"
Mr. Edwards can make lines as hoary as that irresistible. When it comes to film comedy, he's a master. As he demonstrated in his various "Pink Panther" collaborations with Peter Sellers, he can build gags as flawlessly as someone putting together a house of cards 20 feet high. When it comes to writing and staging a multi-million-dollar Broadway show, one that's based on his own hit movie, he's still a master of film comedy.
"Victor/Victoria" has already played Minneapolis and Chicago in extended runs intended to pull the show into shape, but it remains in desperate need of a play doctor, someone on the order of George Abbott. Mr. Edwards seems not to have been able to rethink his movie in theatrical terms, nor does he appear to understand what those terms are. "Victor/Victoria" plays almost as if it were a movie photographed in one extended, unyielding long shot.
Everything is uninflected, without a sense of pace. The show comes to life as if by accident, and sometimes in spite of the obstacles that are placed in its way. Mr. Edwards has found no theater equivalents to movie close-ups, the kind with which he italicizes the essential parts of a screen gag and has used to such marvelous effect to celebrate Ms. Andrews. Go back and look at the dazzling opening images of her in "Darling Lili." Check out the sweeping, circular movements of the camera as it lovingly studies the star, who is also his wife.
Compare them with Ms. Andrews's first entrance at the Marquis: she's onstage virtually before you recognize her, to play a feebly written, drearily lighted scene demanded by the plot. He also fuzzes up the "Jazz Hot" number by preceding her entrance with some commonplace chorus work, which robs her big star turn of its initial dramatic impact. The first-act finale, in which she sings the gently mournful "Crazy World," is staged (in a swank hotel room) and lighted in such a flat way that you can either attend to her or study the set.
Time and again Ms. Andrews bursts through this commonplace context, but the others aren't as gifted or experienced. Mr. Edwards does know one thing: if the choice is between having a good first act or a good second act, choose the latter.The show's second act doesn't soar, but it has enough delights to send you out of the theater in a benign mood.
Among other things, there's a splendidly funny, beautifully timed farcical routine in which five characters zip in and out of the doorways in adjoining duplex hotel suites, each just barely escaping discovery by someone else. This scene, which works only when viewed in the long shot afforded by the stage, makes you yearn for more such Edwards inventions. There's also "You and Me," in which Ms. Andrews and Mr. Roberts harmonize as they do a soft-shoe. Those moments are hard to beat.
Admirers of the film may be aghast to hear that Mr. Edwards has pretty much eliminated one of the songs that contributed so much to Preston's performance: "Gay Paree," in which Toddy delights a nightclub audience by differentiating between Gay Paree, as the tourists know it, and gay Paris. Some of the lyrics and notes have been more or less folded into a new song, "Paris by Night," which is also sung by Toddy, but is nowhere near as memorable.
If most of the new Mancini and Bricusse material is not great (especially Norma's first-act complaint, "Paris Makes Me Horny"), the three additional songs written by Frank Wildhorn, with lyrics by Mr. Bricusse, are even worse. The nadir: "Louis Says," a patter song -- sung by Victor in Marie-Antoinette drag -- whose only wit is the pun in the title.
Much has been made of the fact that in this show, the macho King Marchan is driven so mad for Victor that he's compelled to kiss the creature without knowing (as he does in the film) that he's a she. It all happens so quickly, being immediately followed by Victoria's confession of the truth, that it seems a rather tepid gesture on behalf of gay liberation.
Rob Marshalls's choreography is frenetic, funny, and well danced by the members of the enthusiastic chorus. Also attractive are Robin Wagner's shadow box-like Paris sets and Willa Kim's period costumes.
Keeping everything together, though, being the sun around which the show revolves, is the star. She's been away too long, but I suspect she will now be around as long as she wants. "Victor/Victoria" is Julie Andrews's generous option.
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.