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Touring Is Such a Drag

She doesn't like the road, but Toni Tennille finds her gender-bending role in 'Victor/Victoria' quite appealing.

September 15, 1998|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Toni Tennille hates touring. The traveling, the never-rest schedule, the time away from her mountain home in Nevada.

"It's a weepy day when I have to say goodbye to my beautiful home, the wild animals, everything about it," she said.

So why has she just embarked on a 40-week, coast-to-coast tour with the musical "Victor/Victoria," which stops for six days at the Orange County Performing Arts Center starting tonight, after opening in Portland, Ore., just last week?

"Because it's what I've been doing for years," Tennille explained with a resigned laugh by phone from her hotel in Portland. "And once I'm on stage, it's so appealing, such a challenge to me as a performer. . . . It's incredible."

Tennille, 55, has in fact been on the road for much of the time since the mid-1970s, when she and her husband, Daryl Dragon--as the Captain & Tennille--sold 23 million records on the strength of light pop-rock hits including "Do That to Me One More Time," "Muskrat Love" and "Love Will Keep Us Together," their Grammy Award-winning record of the year in 1975.

Tennille regularly performs solo or teams up with Dragon (who got his nickname because of his ever-present yachting cap), for concerts near to and far from their rustic manse near Reno. Lake Tahoe casinos are frequent venues, and the couple have plans for a long Captain & Tennille tour for 2000, soon after the "Victor/Victoria" run ends.

But now the focus is on the Blake Edwards (book), Henry Mancini (music) and Leslie Bricusse (lyrics) musical that starred Julie Andrews, first in a 1982 movie and then on Broadway. Tennille had hoped to take over for Andrews on Broadway when she left that production,but it never happened. This road show, she said, is the next best thing. Last week, the Oregonian criticized the staging's technical glitches but praised Tennille, saying she "proved she's man enough for the job."

Tennille enjoyed that comment, considering how challenged she feels by the gender-twisting role of Victoria Grant, a hard-luck beauty who decides to make some money by impersonating a man who headlines as a drag queen in a '30s Paris cabaret.

"What I did to prepare was observe men--how they sit, how they stand, how they use their hands," she said. "I also built up my upper body. Not that you can tell, but I know that I'm stronger up there and that affects the way I perform.

"And you have to remember that she's not an expert at this, [so] that gives me some leeway. It's a demanding role, a rewarding role. You get to be goofy, silly, all those things."

Tennille's return to Orange County is laced with nostalgia. Back in the late '60s, she lived in Corona del Mar and got her show business initiation through South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

In 1969, Tennille was invited by Ron Thronsen, one of SCR's directors, to work with him on a "message" musical about the environment. "Mother Earth" soon debuted with Toni Shearer's (that was Tennille's married name at the time) music and Thronsen's book and lyrics.

It was a hit.

"People were lined up around the block to see it," Tennille recalled. "We had Variety, The Times, the [now defunct] Herald Examiner and the Hollywood Reporter. They all came down to write it up."

She said Variety liked it better than "Hair," which led producers to take the show to much larger venues than SCR, which, at the time, was "just tiny, a storefront theater with nothing but an artistic vision."

"Mother Earth" went on the road to San Francisco in 1971. Then it was produced at the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles, and in October 1972 it opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theater.

But by the time it had reached Broadway, the musical had been changed so much Tennille barely recognized it.

"The show lasted three nights and died," she said. "It was this Las Vegasy thing that had nothing to do with what Ron and I created.

"We had no sophistication or knowledge about the business of show business [so] we got bamboozled. We signed away all or creative control. It was a terrible experience. Lots of tears."

It didn't take long for her to recover. During tryouts in San Francisco, she met Dragon, the onetime keyboardist for the Beach Boys who auditioned for a spot in the show. Eventually, the Captain & Tennille emerged.

After they started recording hits, TV executives called. The couple became prime-time stars on ABC in 1976 and '77, but their top celebrity status waned by the '80s.

Still, no regrets. Tennille said that her recording and touring career is satisfying and that Dragon, when not performing with her, runs their Canoga Park studio, Rumbo Recorders.

"We've had everybody from Smashing Pumpkins to Stone Temple Pilots to Guns N' Roses to John Tesh there," she said. "It's been quite a scene, it's been great."

*

* "Victor/Victoria," starring Toni Tennille, opens tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $21-$52.50. Ends Sunday. (714) 556-2787.

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