The stage has long been a place for disguise, and the truths that disguise may reveal. Within the permeable categories of art and entertainment, performers pretend to be who they are not.
Gender has often been an element of that disguise, sometimes forced by the sanctions of a given time. Since women weren't permitted on the Elizabethan stage, a young man in a Shakespearian performance might play a young woman disguised as a man, playfully pretending to be a woman.
Add another layer: In many places and in recent times, law as well as societal norms forced homosexuals into a life of disguise. A truer self might be expressed only in the allowed pretense of the stage.
Add another layer still: In bad economic times, or simply because of an individual's dire straits, trickery becomes even more of a survival tool. The general rule for making a living becomes more important and perhaps more extreme: Show them what they want to see.
All of this was behind the original power of the 1982 movie, Victor/Victoria — the story of a woman who pretends to be a man performing as a female impersonator. Based on a 1930s German movie, this film suggests the fashion for drag of that earlier era. But it also has the traditional comic delights of trickery gone wrong, and multiple deceits requiring improvised additional deceptions.
In 1982 America was in an acute phase of admitting "sexual preference" into public discussion, soon to be fully outed by AIDS, which got its official name that same year. But more general questioning of masculine and feminine roles was also ongoing. The intimacy of the camera revealed the real human emotion in the midst of confusion related to gender and sexuality, even as comedy relieved some of the uncomfortable pressure.
As a movie about live entertainment, Victor/Victoria seemed a natural to be reborn as a musical stage play. Musicals adapted from movies have become a genre, which we've seen before on the North Coast and will see again soon.
For its Broadway debut in 1995, this musical even had the movie's composer (Henry Mancini), writer and director (Blake Edwards) and principal star (Julie Andrews.) But some of the complexities of the film as well as complications of the plot were lost.
In the version now on stage at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, Victoria (played by Jo Kuzelka) is a starving English choral singer in 1930s Paris who is befriended by Toddy (Craig Benson), an aging gay performer who was just fired from his cabaret job. He introduces her to an influential booking agent (Steve Nobles) as a Polish count and female impersonator. She becomes a star, soon enthralling a visiting Chicago nightclub owner and mobster, King Marchan (Rigel Schmitt) who is sexually attracted to her/him. And so the wheels begin to spin.
Since the part of Victor/Victoria was written for the looks, accent and voice of Julie Andrews, a kind of imitation is inescapable. Jo Kuzelka has the vocal range but also the skills to strongly suggest Andrews, and yet make these tunes her own. Her singing was thrilling at times, and as actor and dancer as well, her performance was impressive and promising.
For me, the highlights of the production approached the kind of magic musicals are capable of: the tap-dancing duet of Kuzelka and Benson, the song-and-dance number featuring Lela Annotto (outstanding as King's comically brassy girlfriend) with dancers Dani Gutierrez, Shannon Adams and Islay Dillon-Ogden; and the comic finale with Benson and ensemble.
Given the limitations of North Coast stages, we don't see as much dancing as many musicals allow and need, so what's presented is especially welcome. Linda Maxwell and Debbie Weist as well as cast members Gutierrez, Annotto and Benson contributed choreography. The dance also particularly helps this time because the songs are undistinguished.
The singing was pleasing and the acting in the major parts was well defined (including Luke Sikora as the mobster's bodyguard who is involved in a kind of parallel plot.) Still, much of the action seemed awkwardly staged on a crowded yet minimalist set. The live orchestra is a plus, though it was backstage and too muted to add much excitement.
The story may be revelatory and heartening to a new generation, but thanks to time and the bluntness of this play, Victor/Victoria has lost much of its edge. And yet, the ambiguities of disguise can still intrigue and entertain.
Victor/Victoria is directed by Brad Hills, with musical direction by Dianne Zuleger, production design by Les Izmore and Liz Uhazy, costumes by Erica Frohman, hair and makeup by Josh Tillet. There's a lively supporting cast. It continues at Ferndale Rep through Aug. 11.
Coming Up: Not to be outdone, North Coast Repertory Theatre opens a play next weekend written by an actual female impersonator (and contemporary American playwright): The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, a comedy by Charles Busch. Directed by Scott Malcolm and featuring Gloria Montgomery, Arnold Waddell, Cynthia Kosiak, Denise Ryles and Pryncz Lotoj, it opens on Thursday, July 25. More information at www.ncrt.net.