A show-stopping performance by Kristin Towers-Rowles, StageSceneLA’s Scenie-winning Breakthrough Musical Theater Performer Of The Year, is the best reason to see Malibu Stage Company’s small-stage production of the rarely staged Victor/Victoria.

Movie fans will recall the hit Broadway musical’s storyline from the 1982 Blake Edwards/Julie Andrews film Victor Victoria. In both movie and stage adaptation, Victoria Grant, a destitute English soprano living in 1930s Paris, conspires with Toddy, a gay night club employee, to pass herself off as “Count Victor Grazinski,” the “World’s Greatest Female Impersonator.” Hired by the very same Parisian club owner who would not give her the time of day as a woman, “Victor” soon becomes the toast of Paris. Romantic complications ensue when a Chicago monster named King Marchand sees “Victor” on stage in female drag, falls head over heels for the beautiful “young man,” and begins to have doubts about his heretofore incontrovertible heterosexuality.

Victor Victoria became the Broadway musical Victor/Victoria in 1995 with Andrews again in the title role(s). With book by Edwards, music by Henry Mancini (who scored the movie but died before he could complete its musical adaptation) and Frank Wildhorn, and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Wildhorn, Victor/Victoria The Musical combined all of the above into a tuneful, entertaining, surprisingly enlightened look at love and gender (though its book could stand a bit of 2011 updating to reflect changing attitudes towards same-sex relationships). Victor/Victoria ran nearly two years on the Great White Way and, at least for L.A.-area audiences, would appear not to have been heard of since.

All this gives Malibu Stage Company’s rare Victor/Victoria revival a certain Event Status. If only the production were all that it could and should be.

One can only imagine what a directorial genius like Richard Israel or Todd Nielsen or Nick DeGruccio would have made of Victor/Victoria. Malibu Stage Company’s Richard Johnson’s direction could benefit from added pizzazz, a more imaginative use of the stage, and a greater concentration on making supporting roles less caricaturish.

Channeling Julie Andrews, Julia Holland brings decades of experience and a gorgeous smoky voice to Victor and Victoria, but at this stage in her career, the roles may not be the best fit for the veteran Malibu performer. Holland’s romantic interest is handsome newcomer Butch Anderson as King, a role he will be ready for with more experience and years under his belt. There could certainly be more romantic sparks between the May-December leads, a generation gap not in the script.

Anyone who saw Jake Broder’s Ovation Award-winning star turn in Louis & Keely Live At The Sahara, knows what brilliant work the dynamite entertainer is capable of. In Victor/Victoria, however, Broder appears under-rehearsed and not as comfortable as he should be in Toddy’s skin.

Best among supporting players is Oscar Best as Squash Bernstein, King’s towering bodyguard. Best’s performance is both authentic and touching, and never more so than when Squash’s secret has come out (no pun intended). Other supporting players need to work more on creating less stereotypical, more true-to-life characters.

The dance ensemble, which includes choreographer-lead dancer Albertossy Espinoza, do admirable though not dazzling work.

Towering above this all is the always splendid Towers-Rowles as King’s moll Norma, a role which won Leslie Ann Warren an Oscar nomination and Rachel Ward a Drama Desk award, and one which the 2010-11 Scenie Award winner plays to the hilt. Wisecracking and malapropping to dumb blonde perfection, Towers-Rowles gets two big show-stopping numbers, “Paris Makes Me Horny” and “Chicago, Illinois,” and stops the show each time. Now all that L.A. busiest musical theater leading lady needs is a production at the level of her talents.

Completing the large, hard-working cast are Elizabeth Bortnem, MarLee Candell (Jazz Singer, Guest 1), choreographer Espinoza (Reporter, Deviant Husband)Ako Eyong (Policeman), George Fisher (Sal Andretti, Gregor), Bonnie Frank (Cosmetics Pres., Mme. Roget, Chambermaid)Jona, Lili Kay, Colby Nielsen, dance captain Steven W. Nielsen, Diane Peterson (Miss Selmer), Don Pitts (Andre Cassell, Juke), Milva Rinaldelli, Anibel Silveyra (Henri Labisse), Richard Van Slyke (Richard, Clam)Emilia Vitti (Flower Lady, Guest 2), and Allison Williams.

Providing sensational musical backup are Victor/Victoria’s absolutely first-rate live orchestra, featuring musical director Scott Nagatani on piano, joined by Matt Clark (bass), David Lamont (keyboard 2 and flute), and Rivka Ross (drums).

Danielle Horn’s striking 1930s costumes and Beverly Heusser’s hair and makeup (assisted by Megan Keossaian and costume consultant Debora LaGorce-Kramer) are the production’s best design element (though producer Peterson appears to have stepped onstage from an 1990’s event in her cameo role and Holland’s too heavy makeup could be more flattering to the actress). Jamie Van Soelen’s has designed the production’s okay lighting and Nancy Little the show’s props. Victor/Victoria’s sound design is mostly quite good, despite occasional feedback issues. (Terence Davis and Great American Music receive sound effects design credit and Ricardo Means is sound engineer).

No one takes credit for the production’s cramped, unattractive set design. Numerous scene changes take far too long to execute amidst the sounds of behind-the-curtain scurrying. A professional scenic designer could have worked wonders.

Marti Maniates is production assistant and Diane Carroll assistant director. Additional choreography is by Natalie Rubenstein. Eyong is stage manager.

Victor/Victoria may not be the World’s Greatest Musical (the Tony Awards snubbed the show with the exception of an Best Actress nomination, which Andrews declined), but it has the potential for an all-around terrific intimate L.A. staging. Malibu Stage Company’s revival is not that production, but it does at least have Towers-Rowles as Norma.

Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu.

–Steven Stanley
November 4, 2011

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