Gay thespian Shon Sims II stars in production that opens June 15.
By Don Maines
Agay cabaret singer coaches a woman on how to portray a man pretending to be a woman in the musical Victor/Victoria, which runs June 15-July 1 at Playhouse 1960 in northwest Houston.
The rarely mounted Broadway musical is based on 1982’s Oscar-winning, gender-bending film by Blake Edwards that starred Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston, and Lesley-Ann Warren.
However, “there’s a lot more music and a lot more dancing” in the stage version, says openly gay thespian Shon Sims II, noting that seven songs in the movie won an Academy Award for composer Henry Mancini, but the musical boasts 16, including a new opening number, “Toddy and Les Boys.”
Sims plays Toddy, a crafty cabaret performer in 1930s Paris who reinvents a penniless soprano as a drag chanteuse. The soprano, Victoria Grant, is so convincing as “Count Victor Grazinski from Poland” that “he” becomes the toast of Chez Lui, a popular French nightclub, although one of its patrons, macho King Marchand, refuses to believe he can get the tingles from a man in drag.
“It’s very exciting to riff on gender politics and sexuality in a screwball comedy-farce sort of way,” says director/choreographer Alric Davis, a 2017 graduate of the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. “The musical is an underappreciated gem. I was introduced to it by my professor when he shared a song from it, ‘Le Jazz Hot.’ I thought, ‘What is going on? What is happening in this show?’ It was weird and funny but very relevant to our country today.”
After returning to Houston, where he graduated in 2013 from Carver Magnet School of the Arts, Davis convinced Playhouse 1960 to produce it as the final show of its 2017-18 season. Then, last December, Davis caught Sims in a hip-hop musical, Soulful Sounds of Christmas, at the Ensemble Theatre in midtown Houston, and he “immediately thought” that Sims should play Toddy.
Sims grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, which he found bereft of opportunities for artists. In Houston, he says, “I made it, I secured work and I ended up making a life. My only complaint was the weather; once I settled here, I cried my eyes out, telling my mother, ‘I have a closet full of clothes I can never wear again.’”
Sims says how his character rescues Victoria Grant from poverty isn’t that different from the way he helped a fellow college student find her way into the man’s world of information technology.
“We had the same connection, as she was very talented in computers, so I nurtured her and taught her things as a man that she could do to succeed,” he says. “I am a Capricorn through and through. We pay it forward. I will go broke helping you pay your bills before I will worry about paying mine.”
Davis delights in how he has gone beyond the diversity in the script by including white, black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican-, Dominican-, and Asian-American actors in the production at Playhouse 1960. They include Michelle Ng as Norma, a chorus girl who is King Marchand’s gangster moll. When Lesley-Ann Warren played her in the movie, Warren was nominated for an Academy Award, as were the riotous performances of Preston and Andrews. The movie also scored nominations for Edwards’ screenplay (adapted from a 1933 German film, Viktor und Viktoria), Mancini’s score, art direction/set decoration, and costumes.
1982 was a banner year for movies with gender-bending characters, as Tootsie was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture (with Jessica Lange winning as Best Actress in a Supporting Role), and The World According to Garp picking up the first Academy Award nominations for both Glenn Glose and John Lithgow, who played “transsexual” ex-football player Roberta Muldoon. (Lithgow famously griped, when accepting Best Supporting Actor from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, “I have a bone to pick with the male critics. They call Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep ‘sensual,’ ‘alluring,’ ‘enticing.’ They described me in Garp as ‘hefty,’ ‘beefy,’ ‘gargantuan.’ I began to feel like Wallace Beery. Only Pauline Kael called me ‘pretty’ – in intalics.”
MaryAnna Nagorski, who has performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the female-driven theater company Boiling Point Players, portrays Victoria Grant, while newcomer Felix Smith, who is openly gay, is cast as Sal Andratti, a Chicago mobster. Norma complains to Sal that her boyfriend, King Marchand, “is shackin’ up wit’” a guy.
“There’s this Polish fairy,” she says.
Sims says, “Felix is as hilarious as all get-out. He is very energetic.”
Playhouse 1960 is an all-volunteer community theater that’s located at 6814 Gant Road in Houston, 77066. For showtimes and tickets, go here. The group is currently accepting ideas for its 2019-20 season.