Clothes Make the Woman 

It's heroines in male duds at Masquers and Willows.

In one of the few smart moments from the well-intentioned recent movie flop Connie and Carla, the brainiest character explains the origin of the word drag. "It's from Shakespeare," he says earnestly to two women disguised as drag queens to avoid Mob hitmen. "It's a stage direction, and it's short for 'dressed as a girl. '" Drag the word may be Shakespeare's innovation, but drag the concept isn't. Transvestitism in theater is ancient, venerated, and widespread, from the early Greeks to contemporary Japanese all-female theater companies. Theatrical cross-dressing serves varied purposes. Drag is a powerful tool, often serving to indicate a major change in status. In two current musicals, drag allows women to exploit cultural expectations and claim their power in surprising ways.

Western stage and cinema abounds with examples of what Marjorie Garber, in her book Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, refers to as "progress narratives" wherein a character must cross-dress for success, whether it's avoiding getting rubbed out (Some Like It Hot), getting housing or an education (Bosom Buddies, Yentl), having access to one's children (Mrs. Doubtfire), or getting ahead as a performer (Tootsie, Victor/Victoria, and to some extent Gypsy). There's even an odd emerging genre of male African-American comics portraying law-enforcement officials forced to dress as women (Big Mama's House, White Chicks).

These works vary from stories of drag queens (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Flawless) in that the assumption of drag is not, at first, willing. As Garber notes, "Each [character] is said to embrace transvestitism unwillingly, as an instrumental strategy rather than an erotic pleasure and play space." The implication is that the situation has to be pretty bad to warrant such behavior.

Victoria Grant's situation from Victor/Victoria certainly qualifies. A soprano wandering 1920s Paris looking for a gig, she's cold, hungry, and broke. Fans of the movie version with Julie Andrews will remember the scene where she sneaks a cockroach into a restaurant in a pathetic attempt to get a meal. Fortunately she meets the charming Toddy, who has the bright idea of dressing her up as his new boyfriend and pawning "Victor" off as "Europe's greatest female impersonator." Where Victoria couldn't get work, Victor goes gangbusters -- at least until the debonair (and very straight) King Marchan shows up and the two fall in love.

The production now at the Masquers Playhouse features a few knockout performances, namely Vanessa Schepps as Victoria/Victor, Michael O'Brien as Toddy, and Michelle Pond as Norma Cassidy. Although Schepps could stand to show a little less confidence as "Victor" -- it would be nice to see more of how Victoria learns to play male -- she has a lovely voice. Sometimes it's hard to hear that lovely voice over the overly loud live orchestral accompaniment. There's no such problem for Pond, who chews up and spits out the scenery as King Marchan's moll. Pond is hilarious; watching her sing Paris makes me sexy/Ridin' in a taxi/Gives me apoplexy as she humps a bolster is probably the funniest moment of the whole show.

Sadly, some of the good bits of the film got excised to tighten up the stage version, and writer Blake Edwards and lyricist Leslie Bricusse made some disagreeable changes. One is replacing the funny song "Gay Paree" with the limp "Paris at Night," which is sung twice. In the Broadway production, the second iteration is a dead spot. At the Masquers, it's an opportunity wasted. The flower girl could come out onto the apron of the stage, the curtain could be pulled, and while she sings, a lengthy set change could be happening behind the closed curtain. Instead, she sings from the middle of the stage. After she exits, the stagehands change the set, which brings us to the unfortunate problem of the beds.

Besides the uneven singing and ill-rehearsed dancing, the beds are the roughest spot in this production. Many of the scenes take place in two adjoining hotel rooms. The set designers solved the problem by building one large bed that hinges in the middle and gets rolled out when necessary. Unfortunately, even with the stagehands' speed and precision, this takes way too long. This isn't nitpicking: It's a bad sign when the audience starts to hoot derisively every time the stagehands show up with the bed.

Still, this show is fun, especially if you've never seen the movie and don't know all the surprises in store. Unlike too many films and plays that feature a cross-dresser, this one shows the object of his or her affections actually thinking through the implications of his attraction to the protagonist. What young gender-questioner doesn't swoon when King Marchan takes "Victor" in his arms and proclaims "I don't care if you ARE a man"? The relationship between Victoria and Toddy is also warm and sweet, and the message about being yourself -- male, female, gay, or straight -- a strong and positive one.

Gypsy is less immediately obvious as a show about cross-dressing so much as it is a show about un-dressing, but it follows Garber's pattern. Young Louise, hidden by Mama Rose in the shadow of more talented sister June, is forced to dress like the boys with whom she shares the chorus. Even after June decamps and Louise is pressed into the leading role of Mama Rose's vaudeville act, she's dressed in traditionally male garb as a toreador. Between shows Louise is still dressed as a boy and treated as "one of the guys." We see that she perceives herself as male or neuter (a point the real Gypsy Rose Lee made in her autobiography).

This musical has always really been about the whirlwind Mama Rose, played here by Mary Bracken Phillips. Phillips sums up everything Gypsy Rose Lee had to say about Rose: ambitious, seductive, wily, and ultimately a dreamer who has sacrificed everything in an attempt to make her children the stars she herself wanted to be. It's not hard to see, in Phillips' portrayal, how people could get sucked into Rose's orbit: why else would the chorines stand for the long hours on the road, meager rations, and no pay? How else could Rose ensnare Herbie (the charming Michael Ching), making him not only her lover but the agent for her troupe? So Louise's situation, like Victoria's, is dire. If she doesn't find her power somehow, she'll be schlepping around the country until the end of her days, eating dog food, sleeping in a tent by the roadside, and trying to please her mother. Only by claiming her clothing can she make a life for herself; her only hope for progress is to dress as something she doesn't believe herself to be.

It isn't until Louise assumes female garb -- which she understands as a kind of drag, as evidenced by her surprise when she first looks at herself in the mirror ("Mama, I'm beautiful!") -- that she is able to break free of her mother and the low-rent gigs and become big star Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy Rose Lee was known for having a real sense of humor about what she was doing, and it looks as if she was able to do so because she understood her work as a drag performance, a forerunner of Gloria Steinem's statement: "I don't mind drag -- women have been female impersonators for some time."

The Willows turns out a bright, lively Gypsy. They've always had a knack for finding talented kids for their shows, and this one needs plenty for all the nifty song and dance numbers. Especially noteworthy is Emily Trumble, who is subtly downcast as Baby Louise watching her sister June take the spotlight, although all of the younger roles are well acted, sung, and danced. Guest director Richard Hanson uses a strobe light to work a nice transition between the younger kids and the older cast, a simple effect that works very well to mark the passage of time. The adults aren't too shabby either; Briann Gagnon's adult Louise is sad, awkward, and eventually stunning, and Madeline Trumble is believably saucy as the would-be child star who has had it up to here with their mother's pushiness. Like Victor/Victoria at the Masquers, but far more assured in its production, this show proves that sometimes, clothes make the woman.

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