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Victor / Victoria (Santa Rosa)

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse transforms its stage into 1930’s “Gay Pear-eee” for its current run of “Victor / Victoria”, a full-blown musical adaptation of Blake Edwards’ 1982 film which starred Julie Andrews, Robert Preston and James Garner.  This production, directed by Napa Valley Playhouse Artistic Director Michael Ross, opens January 10th and runs Thursdays through Sundays till February 2nd. I had a chance to catch one of their previews, so (as Craig Miller always reminds his preview audiences) please keep in mind that things can change between previews, opening night and beyond.

For those unfamiliar with the show or its plot, “Victor / Victoria” tells the tale of one Victoria Grant, a down-on-her-luck soprano adrift in Paris who crosses paths with one Carole ”Toddy” Todd, a flamboyant and snarky cabaret singer.  Circumstances throw them together, where they hatch a plot for Victoria to impersonate a man impersonating a woman and become the main attraction at Paris’s premier cabaret. Complications arise when Chicago mobster King Marchand catches the act and finds himself attracted to “Victor”, so much so that he constantly needs to assure himself that “he” probably isn’t really a guy.   Needless to say, Victoria shares the same feelings toward King. Marchand’s attempts to uncover the truth, a rival cabaret proprietor’s attempts to expose the fraud, and the resulting confusion, chaos, and occasional pandemonium all come together to make for a fairly entertaining evening of theatre.

Victor / Victoria is played by local musical theatre mainstay Taylor Bartolucci, who is in fine voice and character for this show and, whether intentional or not, sounds remarkably like Andrews.   Her “partner-in-crime” Toddy is played by Tim Setzer, who is quickly becoming the go-to guy for North Bay musicals. The chemistry between these two performers is genuine, and one gets a sense of true affection between their characters. Unfortunately, the abundance of chemistry between these two performers only accentuates the lack of chemistry between Bartolucci and another.

Anthony Guzman is a young and talented performer who shows comedic flair and possesses a fine singing voice. Both are put to good use in his solo number “King’s Dilemma”, where he musically wrestles with his conflicted feelings. But, sorry to say, I didn’t buy him as the King Marchand who falls madly, deeply in love with “Victor” and who doesn’t really care if “Victor” is a man.  I found Guzman’s Marchand a bit flat (excluding the aforementioned scene) and never felt there was any attraction between Marchand and Victoria.  Bartolucci gives it her all, but Guzman simply doesn’t have the “seasoning” yet to match her in a role of this type. The talent he does display, however, leads me to believe that with additional training and experience he could be more successful as a romantic lead.

A lack of chemistry can doom most plays, but thankfully “Victor/Victoria” has so much going on that the show’s occasional shortcomings are more than compensated for by other moments and performances.  I have no doubt that the Theatre Police will soon be issuing arrest warrants for two cast members in particular. Peter Warden as rival cabaret owner (and frequent victim of comedic violence) Labisse should be doing time for mugging. Warden’s physicality makes him the closest thing to a Rankin/Bass puppet I’ve seen in a long time, and his ability to contort his face makes me wonder if he has the ability to unhinge his jaw. This would facilitate the ingestion of a large quantity of scenery without the requisite chewing. (I mean these as comedic compliments, by the way…)

Abbey Lee should be facing charges of grand theft, as she steals every scene in which she appears. Lee, as Marchand’s “moll” (and Victor/Victoria’s romantic rival) Norma Cassidy, is a whirling dervish of comedic energy who, when she’s not mangling the English language in epic proportions, is bouncing and flouncing her way across stage.  If one considers Bartolucci’s and Setzer’s performances as the heart of this show, Lee’s appearances are welcome shots of adrenaline that keep the heart pumping.

From a technical standpoint, I tend to give previews a lot of leeway. Minor glitches in sound or lighting are to be expected as a show’s crew familiarizes itself with cues and their execution. I do feel, however, that a couple of scenes could have benefited from a technical assist.

In particular, scenes of Victoria performing always seemed to end rather quietly, with Victoria bowing to the unheard applause of a cabaret audience and a rather quiet auditorium.  This would be followed by the “reveal” that Victoria was actually “Victor”, to (what should be) astonished gasps and thunderous applause. Those in the audience familiar with the show attempted to provide that applause, but it was scattershot, and the scenes ended awkwardly.  I think the case can be made that a little audio “sweetening” (recorded applause and reactions) would have helped both the performers and the audience in their comfort and enjoyment of those scenes.

Scenes with which the preview audience had no difficulty enjoying were two comedic set pieces done in Blake Edwards’ trademark slapstick style. One scene, set in the adjoining hotel suites of Victoria/Toddy and King/Norma, consists of the major characters sneaking into each other’s suites and trying desperately not to be seen or caught by diving under beds or into closets.  The cast’s timing was pretty damn good in this scene, and it must take one hell of an effort to NOT see someone in the limited stage space of the GK Hardt Theatre.  The second scene is basically a riot at the cabaret, and involves the entire cast in plenty of stage combat and physical action. This was also a well-timed and well-played scene.

Also well played was Henry Mancini’s music (the prolific composer’s last work before passing) by a nine piece orchestra under the direction of Cynthia Cook Heath.  The orchestra and cast combine to bring the show’s signature numbers (“Le Jazz Hot”, “Chicago, Illinois”, “The Shady Dame of Seville”,etc.)  to vibrant life.

“The Shady Dame of Seville” is done twice in the show as it actually bookends the second act.  It’s a great number and very colorfully costumed and choreographed, but its second incarnation (which I can’t go into for reasons which will be obvious upon seeing it) has always been problematic.  The film doesn’t end particularly well, and neither does the stage show. It’s not anyone’s fault but Edwards’ that the climax of the show seems anti-climactic and unfinished. The show, and its hard-working cast, deserves a better ending.  I’m not sure what Ross could have done to remedy this, but I would have encouraged him to try.

Just as I would encourage you to give this show a try. It has its issues, as many shows do, but the show’s strengths overcome its weaknesses and make it worthy of your time and a ticket.

Victor / Victoria

January 10th through February 2nd

Evenings Thu, Fri, Sat @ 8:00pm    Matinees Sat & Sun @ 2pm

6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
(707) 523-4185

www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Photos by Eric Chazankin