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Contralto Toni Tennille Makes ‘Victor/Victoria’ Her Own

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A character in a very famous musical posed the question: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” He was fuming over the behavior of a woman character who was played by the young Julie Andrews.

In 1982, Andrews provided her own response to that query by starring in the movie “Victor / Victoria” as a woman who pretended to be a man posing as a woman, set against the panorama of Paris night life in the mid-'30s. In 1995, she resumed that role in a big Broadway musical.

A throat condition prevented Andrews from continuing the role on tour. This apparently gave the tour producers an opportunity to ask a variation of the question originally raised by Henry Higgins: Why can’t their show’s “Victor” be more like a man?

After all, Andrews is known the world over as a soprano. Though her “Victor / Victoria” role required her to use an unusually low range, no one truly thought that she sounded--or looked--much like a man.

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Toni Tennille, star of the touring “Victor / Victoria,” which opened Tuesday at Orange County Performing Arts Center, doesn’t look much like a man either, but her voice sounds much lower than Andrews’. When she meets the cabaret emcee who gets the idea of turning her into a spurious female impersonator, her Victoria identifies herself off the bat as a contralto from Alabama (Andrews’ Victoria was a coloratura from England).

Tennille’s voice isn’t especially rich, and her belting occasionally sounds strained--but belt she does. Whatever the quality of individual phrases, the husky sound that comes out of Tennille is more believable as a man’s attempt to sing like a woman than was the Andrews sound (in the movie, that is; I didn’t see Andrews in the Broadway version).

Otherwise, Tennille’s performance is an energetic, if obvious musical-comedy, turn. The show hardly requires subtlety, so Tennille isn’t out of place. Still, many observers thought that Andrews’ star quality was the Broadway version’s main saving grace, and that kind of wattage isn’t readily apparent here.

As for the show itself, which is new to Southland audiences, it isn’t as good as the movie or quite as bad as the worst reports from Broadway would have you believe. This version was not staged by the original’s director (and author), Blake Edwards, or choreographed by the original’s Rob Marshall; filling in are Mark S. Hoebee and Dan Mojica, respectively. But they presumably used many of the Broadway version’s ideas.

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Certainly one of the best theatrical notions bears the Edwards stamp: a second-act blast of classic French farce, with a half-dozen characters coming and going in and between two adjoining hotel rooms. This clever scene disappoints only in the end, when the characters who are trying to determine if Victor is really a woman fail to get the same conclusive evidence that’s obtained in the corresponding scene in the movie.

The Henry Mancini and Frank Wildhorn melodies are marginally better than Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics. The second-act opener, a low-comedy number called “Louis Says,” is funnier than its counterpart in the movie. However, the placement of Victoria’s “Crazy World” solo, in which she sings about the contradictory qualities of her lover at the end of the first act (it was much later in the film), makes no sense; by the end of the first act, Victoria has only just met him.

That lover, a semi-gangster who’s visiting Paris from Chicago, is played by Dennis Cole with a gruff masculinity. His second-act solo about his romantic dilemma is, coincidentally, not unlike a Henry Higgins soliloquy in its half-spoken, half-sung quality. Jamie Ross’ Toddie, the gay emcee who befriends Victoria and makes her a star, is strong and suave, despite the woodenness of the opening number he has to sing.

Two supporting roles are actually the showiest: Dana Lynn Mauro overdoes the blond bimbo shtick (an endless door-slapping bit, for example), but A.J. Irvin, who’s allowed to understate as the bodyguard of the semi-gangster, is much funnier.

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A slow-motion strobe scene is one comedy cliche this show could do without. The choreography, too, wins no awards for originality. The design isn’t as glamorous as the milieu might dictate; even those two hotel rooms, which work well for farce, are awfully small, considering the comments about how luxurious they are.

BE THERE

“Victor / Victoria, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $21-$52.50. (714) 740-7878, (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

Toni Tennille: Victoria Grant

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Jamie Ross: Carroll Todd

Dennis Cole: King Marchan

Dana Lynn Mauro: Norma Cassidy

A.J. Irvin: Squash (Mr. Bernstein)

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Dominic Cuskern: Henri Labisse

John-Charles Kelly: Andre Cassell

Brek Williams: Richard DiNardo

Colleen Sudduth: Miss Selmer/Street Singer

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Christine Ciccone: Madame Roget/Chambermaid

Tom Herber: Sal Andretti

Keith Weirich: Stagehand/Clam

Michael Bunce: Choreographer/Juke

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Presented by OCPAC, Pace Theatrical Group, NETworks, and the Jeriko Touring Company. Book by Blake Edwards. Music by Henry Mancini. Additional musical material by Frank Wildhorn. Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. Directed by Mark S. Hoebee. Choreographed by Dan Mojica. Sets by Robin Wagner. Lights by Diane Ferry Williams. Costumes by Willa Kim, Jimm Halliday. Sound by Scott Armstrong. Musical director John Mezzio. Hair by Bernie Ardia. Production stage manager Kimberly Fisk.


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