Girls Will Be Boys

Well, it took its sweet long time to get here. And it changed quite a bit from what TUTS first promised: Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews -- he the director, she the star -- just like on Broadway. But then he hemmed and hawed over casting. And her lovely voice took ill, and a long, long time to get well. After a while, and a long year of press releases announcing a series of postponements, Theatre Under the Stars finally decided that the show must, as they say, go on. And Victor/Victoria arrived at the Music Hall last week, sans Edwards and Andrews.

As it turns out, the show never really needed all that star power in the first place; furthermore, some things really are worth the wait. This musical about tolerance and gender-bending has a warm, fuzzy '90s message about love, even though it's set in the '30s. Its "gay Paree" (excuse the pun) comes complete with a charming gray skyline.

One cold gray day, a down-on-her luck singer by the name of Victoria Grant wanders into a gay bar in Paris. All she wants is something warm to drink. When she meets Carroll Todd (call me Toddy, he says), a gay has-been who emcees the show in this dingy little dive, it's kismet. It's obviously not the I-want-you-now kind of love at first glance, but the kind in which, right off the bat, they know that, by golly, they'll be friends forever. First he takes her home to his pink Paris grotto, warms her up, puts her in some silky pajamas and offers her the bed. She'll be as safe in the bed as on the couch, he assures her. Suddenly the man he's been dating barges in, mistakes her for a him (she does have on men's PJs, after all) and starts berating Toddy. Victoria comes to the rescue and punches the offending oaf right in the kisser.

Notice the role reversal. And for some reason, it doesn't bother Victoria one bit that all it took to confuse this stranger about her gender was some manly PJs. But this is a musical, and though writer Blake Edwards has jammed the show with '90s politics, it's still a simple story with a simple lesson, and one has to be willing to suspend all kinds of disbelief. Besides, by now it's clear that Anne Runolfsson as Victoria, along with Barry Williams as Carroll Todd (yes, it's the ex-Greg Brady), are pretty darned terrific.

Full of vitality and urgent energy, Runolfsson is so good, her voice so strong and liquid, that it's hard to imagine the much older Andrews in this role. And honestly, I didn't figure out that Barry Williams was that Barry Williams until intermission, when I examined the program. He plays the effeminate old queen -- who wishes out loud that he were a woman -- without ever resorting to a limp wrist or a swish. It's a refreshing and believable performance.

When the (now former) boyfriend leaves, Toddy has a light-bulb kind of idea: Why not dress Victoria as a man and send her out as the best new female impersonator in Paris? It's a kooky, wacky idea, but it just might work! "Trust Me," sings Toddy.

Victoria's first number as Victor is "Le Jazz Hot," probably the only truly memorable number in the show. The work of choreographer Dan Mojica shines: The musical standard of dancers all in a row, kicking up their boring heels, melts into lusciously lithe bodies slithering over chairs as the music sizzles. It's a sexy, surprising number held together tightly by Runolfsson's stunning voice and expressive delivery.

Victoria as Victor is a huge hit, of course. She and Toddy are living it up, their heyday fully arrived, until something comes along to muck it all up. Ah l'amour! King Marchan (Michael Nouri), who sees the show, falls in love with Victor. But Marchan, a rough-edged manly man who's always been as straight as the day is long, decides there is absolutely no way Victor is a man. Because if Victor is male, that means that Marchan is not as straight as he's always believed himself to be. Cue up for another number: "King's Dilemma." Michael Nouri's relaxed, sexy, easygoing delivery suits this very funny, half-talked, half-sung monologue about gender and confused sexuality.

Things are complicated further when Victoria falls for Marchan. If she lets him know she's a woman, she must give up her career, but if she doesn't, they won't ever get together. It's the old female problem: Will she become a powerful but spinsterish careerist or a happily married girl? (Here the new '90s spin on gender falls decidely apart.)

Of course Marchan already has a girlfriend. Long, lean and gorgeously curvy, platinum blond Norma Cassidy, as played by Tara O'Brien, all but stole the show Thursday night. As a wickedly funny, stereotypical dumb blond who's working hard to show off her sophistication (she's seen the "Moaning Lisa"), O'Brien takes the stage and doesn't let go. At times a little over the top, but clearly an audience favorite, Norma, as she attempts to console Marchan after an unsuccessful roll in the hay (he's too busy thinking about Victor) creates some of the funniest moments of the night. Lots of fighting and jealousy ensue.

The end, of course, is happy. Marchan throws caution to the wind and kisses Victor, whatever he/she is, and the audience gets the message loud and clear: Gay or straight, love is the most important thing.

Jody Ashworth as Squash, Marchan's macho bodyguard with a secret love all his own, adds dimension to the theme. And Christine Ciccone as the scotch-sipping chambermaid adds hilarious shtick to a scene that shows off the clever direction of Mark S. Hoebee.

Robin Wagner's set -- with vaguely cartoonish Parisian city streets and poshly garish matching split-level hotel suites -- suits the tone of the show perfectly.

Musical comedies in Houston don't get much better than this production of Victor/Victoria -- even if Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews never bothered to show up.

Victor/Victoria plays through May 30 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, (800) 678-5440.

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