Sunday, March 28, 1999

Tennille stages return with 'Victor/Victoria'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the baby boom generation that grew up with her, Toni Tennille is a pop singer/songwriter par excellence. Little ditties like “Do That to Me One More Time” and “The Way I Want to Touch You” are credited with having 4,000,000 airplays each. That would add up to 22.8 years of continuous play.

        But let's go back about 25 years, when Toni Tennille was flirting with a life in the theater. She was on stage playing leads at regional theater South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif. and one of her colleagues said, "Hey, let's write a show.' So they did.

        Mother Earth played successfully in Costa Mesa and at another regional theater in San Francisco, and they were planning to move it to Los Angeles. That was when Ms. Tennille started auditioning keyboardists and one of them was Daryl Dragon (a k a the Captain) and her life took a sharp turn into pop super-stardom.

        Toni Tennille never did completely lose her yen for theater, which is why she's spending 40 weeks touring the country in the dual roles of Victor/Victoria. The show opens Tuesday in the Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series at Aronoff Center for the Arts through April 11.

        A major screen hit for director Blake Edwards and his wife Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria was a sex farce with music, set in 1930s Paris and very much inspired by the door-slamming, confused identity comedies that define the theatrical genre of “French farce.”

        A down-on-her-luck songstress in Paris meets a kindly gay impressario who persuades her to star in a cabaret act as a man impersonating a woman.

        Voila, Victoria is a star as Victor, but her disguise doesn't help her romance with a businessman who doesn't much like being attracted to a man — and his girlfriend isn't thrilled about it, either.

        In the movie, the three stars were played by Julie Andrews, Robert Preston and James Garner, respectively. The film was reworked into a stage musical for Ms. Andrews a few years ago. On tour, the roles are taken by Ms. Tennille, Jamie Ross and Dennis Cole.

        Composer Henry Mancini songs from the film are joined by additional material from Frank Wildhorn, the current songwriting king of Broadway with Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and now Civil War in preview.

"See if I could'
        Ms. Tennille can afford to not have her life disrupted by leaving her Lake Tahoe, home and touring the U.S. “It was something I really, really wanted to do,” she said by telephone from Phoenix, another tour stop.

        She was attracted to the long-run for the same reason that she wrote her first song. “I just wanted to see if I could.” In this case it was “could still do it.” It's been a long time since she played Nurse Ratched in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

        She's done short runs in shows like Mame and Show Boat,along with one-night symphony pops programs, but nothing that would put her on the road on her own long-term.

        It wasn't an easy decision. She and her husband “talked and talked and went 'round and 'round, and finally Daryl said, "If you don't do this, you're going to spend the rest of your life wondering.'”

        So she signed on. “It's something I feel strongly about — you can never find true happiness by not being who you are.” That has not been a problem in Ms. Tennille's life. “I've always tried to be who I am, whether that works or not — for the public. I've always been a rebel.”

        Going back onto a stage to do a book musical was the easy part. The harder part was discovering “I'm not Superwoman,” she says. “We perform six days a week and travel on the seventh. I'm on stage eight minutes into act one and when I'm not on stage there are four people pulling clothes off and on me.”

        In her off time, she might manage nine holes of golf or some four-hand classical on a piano with a company member, but doing this job, she says, “you can't party.”

25 years with Captain
        Once the Victor/Victoria tour ends, Ms. Tennille plans to head back to Nevada for a breather and think about what's next. The year 2000 is the 25th anniversary for both the Captain and Tennille's Grammy and their marriage (talking, she says, is the formula for a successful marriage) and that kind of says “tour” to her.

        In July she'll mosey over to Las Vegas where Nevada is naming an annual arts award for her. “It will be a big hoop-de-do.”

        She gets her name on the arts award because she spends a fair amount of time in front of her state legislature lobbying on behalf of the arts. “People's perception is that Nevada is just casinos and cowboys.” Ms. Tennille begs to differ.

        She does feel she and her husband have reached a professional crossroads. “Where do we go from here? What do we want to do?”

        Ms. Tennille, who has sung with the Cincinnati Pops several times, has already started booking symphony dates for next season, and she still has a hankering to perform in a play or maybe another musical.

        “But it has to be where I can sit down,” she says firmly. When she unpacks her suitcases at the end of Victor/Victoria, she's done with touring, at least for a while. “I'm feeling like a real grown-up — I don't want to tour constantly anymore.

        “Daryl is after me all the time,” she says, to try her hand again at writing another book musical and “I am thinking about it. It's a wonderful creative act to sit at a piano in a music room. If I can stand all the other (bad things) involved in it.”

        One of her stronger memories of Mother Earth, which actually did manage “about 11 performances” on Broadway, “was constantly being in tears,” she laughs. “Maybe I'm stronger now.”

        What's probably next is whatever moves her. “I do what I do for the creative thrill of it. I always have.”

        IF YOU GO

        • What: Victor/Victoria

        • When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday March 30-April 11.

        • Where: Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series, Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center for the Arts.

        • Tickets: $26.50-$55. 241-7469


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