NEW YORK — When the kindly French homosexual known as Toddy takes in the elderly waif Victoria, he hatches a brilliant plan. She can't get a job as a legitimate singer, despite a voice that shatters glass. His own career in the gay nightclubs of Paris is waning. Toddy and Victoria may be down and out, but by God they have spunk. And as impresario and pretend drag queen, Toddy and Victoria will reverse their fortunes and become the toast of Paris. That is, if Paris can believe that Victoria is Victor, a Polish count.
This was the plot of the 1982 Blake Edwards film "Victor/Victoria," and it is still the plot of the musical that opened on Broadway on Wednesday, also written and directed by Edwards and also starring Edwards' wife, Julie Andrews, as the title character. On the surface, Andrews makes sense as a faux female impersonator--she has a certain androgyny, or perhaps it is simply an absence of sexual energy. There's a reason why she's most famous for playing a nun and a nanny.
But her age and her squeaky-clean image work against her in this clunky musical, which features an undistinguished score with tunes by Henry Mancini and Frank Wildhorn, and with excruciating lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. In "If I Were a Man," Victoria's ode to the advantages of testosterone, she sings, "If I were a man / I could do a lot of things a woman never can." Among those things, she'd be "free to plot and plan"; she would "explore every far-off land" and she would "not need to feel like an also-ran." It is astounding that these lyrics made it to opening night.
But what's even more astounding is how badly Blake Edwards employs his wife's considerable talents. Big stars with big images who return to the stage have a certain vulnerability. Even Carol Channing is better displayed in the umpteenth "Hello, Dolly!" revival currently on Broadway than Andrews is in this much ballyhooed return to the Broadway stage. Andrews comes out of the gate with a handicap: She's too old for her part (she already was in 1982), which begins as a starving, freezing, out-of-work artiste. As her rescuer, Tony Roberts (in the Robert Preston role of Toddy) exudes a sweet ruefulness.
"Le Jazz Hot," Andrews' big number in the first act, is a song that says nothing, but allows her to sing and look good while decked out in fringe and glitter. This song marks Victor's nightclub debut, the number that will launch him as a drag queen sensation. The idea is that Victoria will begin the number and stun the audience at the end by revealing herself as Victor, the most brilliant female impersonator Paris has ever seen.
In Rob Marshall's musical staging, Victoria sings, gets on top of a piano and is wheeled off the stage, only to be replaced by younger and more energetic dancers, as if intentionally underlining the star's diminishing wattage. Then she is wheeled back on, and gets down to finish the song--a pleasant, rather generic number that doesn't exactly establish Victoria as a paragon of femininity. Finally, she whisks off her headpiece to reveal . . . \o7 short hair\f7 ! "The Crying Game," this isn't.
The number does not end with the dull thud it has earned, but with the shrieking, clapping entrance of Edwards' comic trump card: Rachel York as a definitive blonde bimbo, Norma Cassidy. Norma is mistress to the handsome gangster King Marchan (Michael Nouri), the man who will make Victor long to be Victoria again.
With her sashaying hips and frightening little-girl voice, York is more of a cartoon woman than the impersonator Victor. York gets to play delicious low comedy, the very thing at which Edwards, who directed "The Pink Panther" movies, has proven himself brilliant. Since her role requires nothing but low comedy, York sashays away with the show.
Things get better in the second act, if only because our expectations have taken such a beating in the first. Edwards stages a classic "Pink Panther" scene, with actors sneaking about in two hotel rooms, most of them trying to discover Victor's true identity and barely missing each other by split seconds. In the film, this sequence ends with the gangster (James Garner) watching Victor disrobe--and finding incontestable proof that he is a she. Here, the elaborate bit ends without a punch line, when one of the sleuths, a blackmail-minded nightclub owner named Labisse (Adam Heller), finds a woman's coat in Victoria's closet. Eureka! Labisse mimes at the discovery. But what kind of discovery is that? A woman's coat in a drag queen's closet?
Ninety percent of "Victor/Victoria's" humor relies on the hilarity of someone or other finding out someone or other is gay, or not. It makes "La Cage aux Folles" seem positively cutting-edge. Finally, a big lug bodyguard (the funny Gregory Jbara steps forward to loudly sing: "It's not a crime to love one another!" and the audience wildly applauds this plea for tolerance that comes at no price to anyone in the show.
As this is the big musical opening of the fall, one can only say that Broadway deserves better. For her return to Broadway after more than 30 years, Andrews deserved something more befitting her talents and stature.
\o7 * "Victor/Victoria," Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway at 46th Street, $40-$75. (800) 755-4000.\f7