Theatrical Gold: Captivating 'Victor/Victoria', at Southwark Playhouse (Review by Fiona Lister)

5 stars for Victor/Victoria at Southwark Playhouse
Anna Francolini stars as Victoria Grant in Victor/Victoria at Southwark Playhouse
Anna Francolini stars as Victoria Grant in Victor/Victoria at Southwark Playhouse | Source
Anna Francolini stars in Victor/Victoria at Southwark Playhouse
Anna Francolini stars in Victor/Victoria at Southwark Playhouse | Source

Book by Blake Edwards l Music By Henry Mancini l Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse

Additional Music By Frank Wildhorn

Starring Anna Francolini

Produced by Danielle Tarento

Directed by Thom Southerland

Choreography by Lee Proud

Musical Direction & Orchestrations by Joseph Atkins

Last Thursday Southwark Playhouse celebrated the triumphant opening night of the exotic Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse musical Victor/Victoria.

Created by the same award-winning team who recently produced the highly successful Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse (nominated for thirteen Off-West End Awards 2013), Victor/Victoria is one of those rare theatrical diamonds that successfully blends the most beautifully written book, musical score and lyrics. Danielle Tarento (Producer), Thom Southerland (Director) and Lee Proud (Choreographer) have created an artistically refined glamorous production that smoulders with red hot jazz numbers, sequins, Broadway glamour, vim and éclat. Victor/Victoria is the sparkling vintage champagne of shows. I haven’t seen a production this year where the balance between book and musical score is crafted to such a high level of perfection that given the right cast it can completely blow your mind. Victor/Victoria does just that; it’s astounding – a fast, racy storyline that warms the heart and leaves you laughing at throwaway comic lines. Matched with this are electrifying songs and dance routines.

Victor/Victoria is the compelling story of impoverished soprano Victoria Grant (Anna Francolini), who cross-dresses as a gay Polish female impersonator in order to survive the seedy Paris club scene. The intriguing rags to riches and female to male charade leads her to stardom. Confusion, love and hilarious consequences follow when Victoria or ‘Count Victor Grazinski’ as she becomes known, finds herself in love with a man, posing the question: should she risk her career, reputation and financial stability by revealing her true identity or should she remain disguised, famous and minted? I’m not going to give any more away but recommend you discover what happens for yourselves….

The orchestrations by Joseph Atkins (Musical Director/Orchestrations/Vocal Arrangements) and Joanna Cichonska (Assistant Musical Director) are out of this world and the entire ten-piece orchestra with the help of Sound Designer Andrew Johnson sounds like a 20-piece orchestra (Joseph Atkins – MD/Keys; James Cleeve – Accordion; Johanna Saarinen – Violin; Petra Saxby – Cello; Steve Clark – Reed 1; Paul Sadler/Erik Tomlin – Reed 2; Ben Wong/Mark Farrar - Trumpet and Nick James – Drums/Percussion). Musical numbers Paris By Night, Le Jazz Hot! (which I’m listening to now as I type this), Chicago, Illinois and Almost A Love Song are exquisite.

Victor/Victoria is pure theatrical gold. This is a brilliant Off-West End show (I don’t even like writing the words ‘Off-West End’ and ‘West End’ because there’s now a paper thin difference between the two – it’s namely budgets that define these terms). Off-West End theatres often produce shows that reach beyond the scope of some West End productions. Producers have to work harder, delve much deeper creatively and don’t have the finances, so the stakes are much higher, but what they and directors do have is the artistic savvy to reach beyond the constraints of tight budgets.

Thom Southerland is one of the most accomplished, creatively astute directors in the business. Thom makes use of every ounce of the Southwark Playhouse studio space to give the illusion of a spectacular Broadway show, working with choreographer Lee Proud to maximise the impact. The cast races on and off the stage with props and simple scenery, such as a bed covered with silk sheets, a bureau, and restaurant table and chairs. Southwark Playhouse Vault is just about the most exciting, intoxicating backdrop for a show set in the dark, smoke-filled clubs of 1930s Paris. The distant sound of an occasional tube rumbling past beneath adds to the dingy, smoky club ambience and there’s a whiff in the air of musty old Charing Cross antique bookstores.

Set and Costume Designer Martin Thomas together with Design Assistant Vyto Pocius have surrounded the Vault with chairs on either side of the space. Tables draped in tablecloths adorned with the orange glow from lamp lights are dotted around the room. Audience members sit at them and are invited to become part of the story. Lighting Designer Howard Hudson has also worked his magic – I particularly loved the sophisticated use of different coloured spotlights on the cast throughout dance/cabaret routines. Costume makers Sakura Fujibayashi/Noelle Claude/Gemma Burge/Suzi Wilson/Rachel Checkley have created a dazzling wardrobe full of chic 1930s garments that sparkle beneath the lights.

The storyline races along with brilliant quick-fire, slapstick comedy and punchy bedroom farce paired with a devilishly addictive musical score. The sizzling razzle-dazzle dance routines rival any Broadway production and are undoubtedly the best I’ve seen in a recent show, bar the long-running Crazy For You (ran earlier this year over at the Novello Theatre). Choreographer Lee Proud explained that he’s been training the cast “like athletes” and putting them through their paces in order they can build up stamina to withstand the hours on stage in such high energy routines.

Anna Francolini gives the performance of a lifetime (worthy of an Olivier Award) in the title role of cross-dressing 1930s cabaret star Victoria Grant, a role that was initially created by Julie Andrews in the 1982 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer comedy musical film and subsequent Broadway production (a remake of the Viktor und Viktoria 1933 German film).

Anna explained after the show that she’s been living and breathing the role of Victoria Grant for the last two months and is totally absorbed with her character. The result is phenomenal. Anna Francolini has the rare ability to blur the line between sexuality, creativity and real life so seamlessly that every word, gesture, song and dance routine leaves everyone convinced in her character’s mixed up, heady charade. Switching from a strong female role into a shrewish man about town is astounding and that’s not something any leading lady could easily manage. Julie Andrews was of course stunning in the role, but always more Bambi-eyed female than male, where as Anna Francolini has concentrated on a different Victor by building on the male characteristics and mannerisms to such a degree that it’s insanely convincing. There’s also a more rugged quality to Anna’s interpretation of Victor with less emphasis on Hollywood gloss and pizzazz, apart from the Marie Antoinette club scene which is ingenious. Victoria and Victor are portrayed as earthy survivors who hang on by their fingernails to ways out of poverty; once they’ve tasted fame there’s no going back. I last watched Anna play the role of Maria Callas in Martin Sherman’s powerful production of ONASSIS over at the Novello Theatre in 2010, where she starred opposite another brilliant character actor Robert Lyndsay (Onassis). Anna’s performance as the lovelorn, suffering opera diva stole the show and reduced members of the audience to tears.

The title role was cast by the show’s superb award-winning Producer Danielle Tarento, who is also currently producing another show across town at Brixton Club House – the highly acclaimed Boy George Musical Taboo which is now extending its run to March 2013: http://mellowdaylondon.hubpages.com/hub/The-Boy-George-Musical-Taboo

Richard Dempsey is magnificent in the supporting role of Victoria’s handsome gay best friend Toddy who rescues her from an impoverished life and propels her into a world of fame, fortune and stardom. Dempsey gives a tender performance as the equally poor friend who invites Victoria to stay in his hotel room when she discovers her cheap clothes have shrunk in the rain. The next morning Toddy’s hustler friend Richard (Matthew Pennington) arrives to collect his belongings only to discover that Victoria is wearing his clothes. Victoria royally boots him out of the door, leaving Richard convinced that Victoria is a man. Toddy is inspired and decides the only route out of poverty is for Victoria to adopt the male persona of a man who impersonates women. Toddy presents her to successful agent André Cassell (Mark Curry) and hey presto, Victor is toast of the town (amongst men who frequent the club). Victoria’s professional life is going swimmingly until she/Victor finds her/himself in love with the debonair King Marchand (Matthew Cutts) who in turn is naturally confused about his sexuality. Kate Nelson is fantastic in the role of King Marchand’s moll, Norma Cassidy, who tries her best to seduce him, only to find disappointment in the bedroom when to her horror she believes he fancies a man.

Other mentions must be made to the rest of the sensational cast: Michael Cotton (“Squash” Bernstein); Ashley Knight (Henri Labisse); Dafydd Glynn Howells (Hotel Manager/Choreographer/Sal Andretti); Luke Johnson (Ensemble); Natalie Kent (Cosmetics President/Ensemble); Amira Matthews (Prostitute/Ensemble); Kayleigh Ross (Ensemble) and Nick Stuart (Dancer/Call Boy/Stage Manager/Ensemble). In particular, Jean Perkins gives a stellar performance in the roles of Simone Calisto/Waitress/Miss Selma/Chambermaid and Renée.

Victor/Victoria is “Le Jazz Hot” production of the year. Whether you are a regular theatregoer or visiting London, don’t miss this glittering Broadway revival.

Victor/Victoria at Southwark Playhouse Vault ran until 15th December 2012.

http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-vault/victorvictoria/

Tickets can be purchased online by Clicking Here or through the Box Office: 020 7407 0234.

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