Ann Michels (as Victoria Grant) and the ensemble of Artistry’s Victor/Victoria. Photo by Devon Cox.
Victor/Victoria is not a great ensemble show. The current Artistry production at the Bloomington Center for the Arts is a great star vehicle for Ann Michels, but most of the other actors get the short end of the musical stick. This doesn’t mean that the show can’t be a good time, but it’s a more transient than “leave the theatre humming the tunes” sort of experience.
Strip away the show’s star vehicle focus and what you have in Victor/Victoria is essentially an extended farce. Artistry’s production is at its best when it embraces this vein of humor, and at its least engaging when the material is treated as if it were merely a “straight” musical comedy. Forget the farce and you have a show that’s tepid. Push towards subtlety and you lose something, because it messes with the necessary suspension of disbelief and makes different elements dissonant. Director/Choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell’s direction takes much of the show to settle on a consistent tone, which drops a couple scenes in the “meh” middle.
When things do work, though they work very well. The four-song sequence that ends the first act is delivered with great (and contrasting) gusto, pizzaz, and aplomb. “Le Jazz Hot!” is the first big production number to kick things into high gear, bringing for the first time a real sense of spectacle and being visually and musically engaged. The amusing “Tango” that follows is fun and cute, featuring contrasting bubbly and straight man performances by Emily Scinto and Ann Michels, a humorous vein further explored in the following “Paris Makes Me Horny” (rendered to great humor and effect by Scinto). Then Michels brings the house down with “Crazy World”.
One of the reasons that the first half of Act I doesn’t excite is that it’s filled with inconsistencies – things like costumes that don’t all jive with the period, a lack of surety about Victoria (Ann Michels)’s propensity to punch out characters (Is this supposed to be played realistically, in which case it’s disturbing, or comedically, in which case it doesn’t ring as such?), and just not having that great musical material to begin with. The elements that do shine through, like Leslie Vincent’s hilarious turn as the accident-prone club manager Henrietta Labisse, are those that wholeheartedly embrace the farcical extremes.
Act II flows much smoother and is quite a lot funnier. One of its highlights is a dialogue-free movement ballet that has characters breaking into each others’ rooms and diving under beds and behind couches, all the while dodging a scene-stealing housekeeper. This piece uses practically every corner of Jeff Brown’s set, and arguably showcases Ferrell’s best movement choreography in the show. The plot sticks with the equivalent of popcorn and confetti, yes, but the music’s more engaging and the production numbers “Chicago, Illinois” and “Victor/Victoria” are lively and fun.
Musically, at Sunday’s performance, there were a few numbers that didn’t seem to have gelled yet, with the singers and pit ensemble noticeably out of time with each other. Since this improved steadily as Act I progressed, that will hopefully disappear as the performers get used to the space. Rich Hamson (Toddy)’s best moment is when he grabs the spotlight (and bedazzles) in his featured solo in the title number – just try and spot him sneaking into the ensemble. The romantic leads Ann Michels (Victor/Victoria) and Shad Olsen (King Marchan)’s “You and Me” shows some of their best singing, and a rare moment of affecting poignancy in the show.
Artistry’s Victor/Victoria is the musical equivalent of a milkshake. You know you’ll be hungry later, but on a warm spring day it’s a fun and refreshing as you sit back and enjoy.
Victor/Victoria plays through May 5 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts in Bloomington, MN.,