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At times slow, 'Victoria' still a hoot

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001


The usual trick with a show built around a female impersonator is having the audience either not know or only vaguely know that "she" is a man.

Take, for example, M. Butterfly, where a diplomat in China has a long love affair with an opera diva, unaware that the object of his affections is a man. Even as you watch the diva undress to reveal his gender near the close of the play, you still can't believe it's a man.

The musical Victor/Victoria, playing through May 27 at Stage West Community Playhouse, is just the opposite. You know from the outset that the title character (Betsy Glasson) is a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman; that's the schtick. This means the actors and director have to depend on other elements to make the show work.

It mostly does work at Stage West, mainly because of outstanding characterizations by several cast members, plus a solid set by Sig Stock and crew and scores of sumptuous costumes by Tom Russell and assistants. Blake Edwards' book and Henry Mancini's score aren't stellar, but they're enough to hang a production on.

The drawbacks at Stage West are some decisions by director Russell and music director Roberta Moger that make the two-hour, 45-minute show drag in spots, though the second act does pick up the pace.

Yes, the show follows the script, but Edwards' script was written as a star vehicle for his wife, Julie Andrews, and audiences just can't get enough of her. Ms. Glasson acquits herself nicely in the title role, but it takes an Andrews or Merman to carry a lengthy production.

And even though the original score contains two big dance numbers, a wise community theater director who doesn't have access to a top-notch dance line would be better off shortening those numbers and letting the singer do her thing, sans dancers. Both Ms. Glasson and character actor Leanne Germann are good enough to carry their respective songs without a stage full of others.

As a bonus, judicious cuts would let Victoria save her energy for the big ending. As it is, she seems almost too pooped to pipe in the demanding, back-to-back closing numbers.

Mid-run is probably no time to start interior trimming (even if the director wanted to), but the long overture could easily be ditched, the tempo for If I Were a Man revved up, and the audience-puzzling apache dance at the start of the second act eliminated, slicing, oh, 15 or 20 minutes off the running time and giving the audience's numb fannies some respite.

That way, we could concentrate on and savor the fine performances by Matthew J. Veasey as Victoria's gay mentor, Toddy; the delightful Ms. Germann as the loud-mouthed bimbo, Norma Cassidy; and supporting players Bob Reece as the fidgety night club proprietor Henri Labisse, Dalton Benson as the fawning actors' agent, Andre Cassell, Sam Petricone as a Chicago hood who steals a whole scene with one measly word and many others.

Veasey plays Toddy to perfection, not swishing around in caricature, but as a real, live, warm human being who just happens to like other fellas. Veasey's small asides and absent-minded singing as he goes about his hotel suite ("If I were the only boy in the world, and you were the other boy.. . .") are priceless.

Ms. Germann is a hoot as she flounces around the stage barking orders to low-level hoodlums and bashing anybody in reach with her handbag. She fearlessly uses her own physical attributes to make her character totally adorable in an uncouth sort of way.

Her tango scene with Ms. Glasson is a comically sublime moment for both players.

Another shining moment comes when Stage West newcomer Jean Hayes (a Times employee), as the Flower Lady, sings Paris by Night. Ms. Hayes' clear, modulated tones are mesmerizing and her small, slender, vulnerable-looking form captivating.

Unfortunately, the opening night audience was often sadly unresponsive to the clever jokes and sparkling delivery by this cast. No one booed the gay characters or moaned at the risque language, but they didn't loosen up until the show was almost over.

Ah, well, maybe it was too much inside baseball, as they say.

If you go

Victor/Victoria, a musical at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill, Thursdays and weekends through May 27. Performances are at 8 p.m., except Sundays at 2 p.m. Box office is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and an hour before each show. Call (352) 683-5113.

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