Goodspeed Offers Solid Production of Gypsy That Most Will Enjoy
Classic musicals and plays present special challenges for theaters. The same goes for classic roles.
Gypsy, A Musical Fable, now at Goodspeed through Sunday, June 25, illustrates this.
Audience members often come in with their own ideas about how the show should be done or a role played. It can be difficult to set those ideas aside when a director or performer takes a different slant.
This classic musical was originally written specifically for Ethel Merman, a huge Broadway star, by Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book). It was loosely based on the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee, the stripper/actress/writer. Her book was not 100 percent accurate; some would say it was more inaccurate than accurate. In the book, Lee recalls her childhood in vaudeville (with her sister, the actress June Havoc). The central character is her mother (Mama Rose), the ultimate stage mother. Thus, the musical became a tour de force vehicle for Merman and later Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti Lupone, who all played the role in Broadway revivals.
Is Mama Rose the devil incarnate who forces her children to do things they don’t want to do? Is she a woman living through her children, pushing them to accomplish what she wishes she had? Is she a user? Is she a cold-hearted steamroller, or does she have a softer side?
The last two Broadway revivals, starring Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone, illustrated the steamroller (Lupone) and the softer side (Peters).
Judy McLane’s portrayal leans slightly toward the Peters take on the role. This Mama Rose may be oblivious to her motives and to her children’s wants and needs, but she is not a monster. She has a softer and flirtatious side.
Some disagree strongly with this interpretation. They argue that Rose must be a monster.
I, for one, think the softer approach is a plausible take on the character. She does love her children and firmly believes that she is doing what is right for them. She does care for Herbie but can’t bring herself to give up her dream for her children. She is blind to what she does to them in the name of love. She doesn’t recognize her own motives. Yet during the show, she becomes more and more out of touch with the realities of her children’s talents and the changing world of show business.
You can understand her. Her own dreams were thwarted, and she wants to make very sure that her children’s are not. That she doesn’t recognize that their dreams are not the same as hers, that is her mistake.
This production of Gypsy, while perhaps not outstanding, is solid. Those who love the show and its music will not be disappointed. Others will realize that it could be so much more.
Does the fault lie in the direction and vision of Jenn Thompson? Is it the casting? You can’t be sure.
Mama Rose is an exhausting role. Judy McLane, who has played Donna in Mamma Mia! thousands of times, has difficulty vocally; it often seemed as though she was slightly under pitch. But her performance of ”Rose’s Turn” at the end was excellent, and she brings out a softer side of Mama. It took a while for Philip Hernandez as Herbie, their agent and Rose’s would-be fourth husband, to find his footing. Herbie is a nebbish, but it seemed in the first act that the character’s passiveness resulted in a low-energy performance. His best scene was in act two when he leaves.
Thompson has emphasized the most annoying characteristics of child performers by having Baby June (played by Emily Jewel Hoder, who was Amaryllis in the recent production of The Music Man) screech. It is grating on the ears and surely not good for her voice. Yes, she is supposed to be exuberant and over-the-top, but not assault the ears. Cameron Blake Miller plays the overlooked Baby Louise with reserve.
As usual, the trio of strippers and “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” are highlights of the show. Valerie Wright (Tessie Tura), Romelda Teron Benjamin (Mazeppa), and Victoria Huston-Elem (Electra) get everything out of the number. They are helped by the costumes created by Eduardo Sicangco. His costume for Electra was one of the best I’ve seen.
The adult Louise (who has become Miss Gypsy Rose Lee), Talia Suskauer, takes too much of a back seat to Rose much of the time. In the second act, Louise is the one trying to talk sense to her mother; later, she stands up to her by asserting her independence.
The show should reach its emotional heights in the last scenes: Herbie leaving Rose, Louise emerging as a top burlesque queen and celebrity, and Mama’s breakdown. Only two out of three of these work. The montage of Louise becoming a more and more confident and successful stripper did not. Was Thompson uncomfortable with it? Could Suskauer not carry it off? The montage doesn’t show the Gypsy’s development of star power. For me, it fell flat.
Another surefire moment in the show was more successful. It is the first act, “All I Need Is the Girl.” Tulsa, one of the teenage boys in the act, shows Louise the dance number he is developing; he is planning on leaving the group and going on his own. The music is great, Michael Starr sells the number, and the choreography by Patricia Wilcox is very good. Suskauer, as Louise, also makes the moment work; you see her wistfulness and her dream that she will be Tulsa’s partner. In reality, he ran off with Dainty June, who became actress, director, and author June Havoc.
The scenic design uses a clever way to announce each scene. The background is similar to an old-fashioned theater curtain with ads for various stores. But also included is information about the location of each scene. These are highlighted by lighting designer Paul Miller.
You will enjoy this production of Gypsy. You may not be blown away by it, but you will revel in the music.
For tickets and information, visit Goodspeed.org.