Victor/Victoria, which made its first appearance in 1982 as a movie starring Robert Preston and Julie Andrews, was daring in its day. Set in 1930s Paris, it's a mixture of sophistication and nostalgia, a gentle, funny exploration of sex roles told in songs and skits and held together by a sexually fraught and ambiguous love story. The plot involves a down-on-her-luck young woman with a pure soprano, who finds nightclub success impersonating a male who's a female impersonator. This is fertile territory, and it was well-known to Shakespeare, whose most seductive heroines -- Portia, Rosalind, Viola -- were women pretending to be men (and played, of course, by young boys). If the Victor/Victoria story has lost its ability to shock, it hasn't lost its ability to charm.
Unfortunately, the Arvada Center production is a bit of a slog. It lacks style. It lacks focus. It lacks heart. It's slow where it needs to be swift, heavy instead of soufflé light. Some of the problem lies in the casting. Joan Staples has a beautiful singing voice, but she's an oddly flat Victoria. At the beginning, when she enters shivering, supposedly drenched and hungry, we don't believe her plight for a moment. Most of the energy in the big song numbers comes from the chorus rather than Victoria herself, and her love scenes, too, lack feeling. Bill Berry plays the crucial role of Toddy -- fussy, enterprising and empathetic, every girl's ideal gay buddy. Berry is always enjoyable to watch. He's big and goofy and sort of sweetly laid back, and he has a way of delivering his dialogue in a weary minor key that interestingly undercuts all the high-pitched shenanigans going on around him. But Berry is miscast here, where a cleaner, more focused presence is required.
Then there's Heidi Morrow-Hahn, who plays ditzy Norma Cassidy, a gangster's moll from Chicago. Her first entrance is a delight. She's clearly giving the role everything she's got. She's loud, silly, funny, energetic, gloriously over the top. But as she launches into "Paris Makes Me Horny," writhing on the bed, entrapping her gangster lover, King Marchan, in her long, shapely legs, she becomes off-putting. She's just so hard and slick that your interest slides right off her. This is a shame, because it would take only a little silence, a tiny pause here or there while the actress absorbed the reactions of the other characters, for this performance to fly. But Morrow-Hahn's coldness is endemic to this production. While Berry exudes a genuine though somewhat detached kindness, almost no one else in this cast seems to give a damn what anyone else on stage is doing.
Despite problems of pace, timing, detail and emphasis, some of the actors do provide strong moments. Rick Hilsabeck has both heart and terrific comic timing as the romantic lead, King Marchan. David Schmittou is appealing as Squash; Paul Page does well as the affable agent, Andre Cassell, and Susan Dawn Carson gives a quiet, simple rendition of "Paris by Night" that's very appealing. I also spotted some fine dancing in the chorus. But overall, there's a heavy, slow, fuzzy feeling to the evening, as if you were watching through damp cardboard.
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