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Friday, 05 April 2013 16:01

Stray Dog's 'Gypsy': Not a Homer but a Solid Triple

Written by Andrea Braun
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The Details

(l to r) Sabra Sellers as Gypsy Rose Lee, Eileen Engel, Andy Kay, Sierra Buffum
(l to r) Sabra Sellers as Gypsy Rose Lee, Eileen Engel, Andy Kay, Sierra Buffum / John Lamb

According to many students and fans of stage musicals, Arthur Laurents’, Jule Styne’s, and Stephen Sondheim’s "Gypsy: A Musical Fable" is the best of the best traditional book musicals ever produced.

A case for its supremacy can be made by looking at the libretto. Laurents has written a script that would make absolute sense without music. The songs illustrate the points rather than make them, most of the time. But then those numbers are also about as good as words and music can get. According to actors, directors, and others involved in putting on a show, this means pressure to get it right. Stray Dog Theatre doesn’t shy away from challenges, and most of the time, they succeed in meeting them. With "Gypsy", I don’t think they knocked it out of the park, but they’ve hit a triple.

I liked almost everything about the show starting with the packed house on opening night. I know audiences love musicals and they’re aware this is a special show, but still, I almost feel silly writing a review since they sold opening weekend out before anyone has seen the production. That’s amazing for a small company. In his Director’s Notes, Gary F. Bell writes about the difficulty of producing such a big show on a small stage, but they’ve handled that problem reasonably well, which leads me to a couple of aspects I thought were problematic. One is that since we’re in such a small house, even the least detail can become kind of a big thing, and such is the case here.

This sounds odd, but bear with me: In a larger venue, I think Deborah Sharn would be excellent as Madame Rose. As it is, she’s quite good, and her great strength is her voice. She sings every note, and even though I could only hear her out of one speaker, she sounded fine. But she seems less comfortable with the acting and movement required of her character. However, in the true acid test for the performer, the “11 o’clock number” that inspired that very phrase, “Rose’s Turn,” seemed a bit beyond her. This song is the summary of the whole show, of who Rose really is, and the real meaning of her oft-mentioned dreams. It requires the performer to move, emote and belt out an anthem of repression and heartbreak but without completely falling apart. Sharn isn’t a dancer, and that ability isn’t necessary for the character, but her purposeful movements here require grace. Her face must play nuance, and this is no fault of Sharn’s, because we are just too close to her and she looks almost Norma Desmond-ish at the climax of the sung soliloquy. But then, she has to turn around and change the mood on a dime. When that happened in this production, it looked false, and for me, it makes the ending flat.

The lack of dance ability also seems to make Ken Haller’s Herbie look like more of a schlub than the character already is. It’s hard enough to understand why Herbie loves this stage mother-monster so much and stays with her until she does something unforgivable. His devotion needs to be conveyed in looks and gestures and a kind of awareness under the surface that he’d rather not love this woman, but he just can’t help himself. The moment they dance together needs to be transcendent, but it looks awkward. Again, Haller is a fine singer, but he seems uncomfortable in Herbie’s skin, at least in Act I. He does get better as the show progresses, and by his final scenes, I was impressed.

So much depends on the orchestra in "Gypsy", and this one, under Chris Petersen’s direction, delivers. The score is brass-heavy with the other instruments supporting the vaudeville/burlesque sound in many of the numbers. The reeds and flute come to the fore in softer songs like “Small World,” that Rose and Herbie sing to each other when they first meet that represents their falling in love, and “All I Need is the Girl” with Tulsa (Zach Wachter) impressively singing and dancing in front of Louise (Sabra Sellers) who echoes his movements and partners with him at the end. The music often sounds discordant to reflect the dives these people are forced to perform in, but since there aren’t any false notes when accompanying singers, then the musicians are playing a role all their own, helping to create a sense of set.

Sellers and Jennifer Theby-Quinn (as Louise’s sister, “Dainty” June) are a grand pair. Both inhabit their roles fully and have formed a believable sisterly bond. Because of that, when June betrays Louise, it’s all the more poignant. The two of them share a kind of “Herbie and Rose” relationship. June, as the “star” of Rose’s act since early childhood, the “pretty” one, the “talented” one, can be a bit of a diva, and even so, Louise is slavishly devoted to her. But June is also the savvy one who understands that they have no real talent, their act is a disaster, and Mama is a control freak who only cares about herself, despite her constant protestations that “my girls come first—always have, always will.” Yes, they do, but June knows why. The older but more innocent Louise does not understand their mother as June does, so she goes along doing anything it takes to please “Mama,” until at last, she becomes “Gypsy Rose Lee,” a star. Perhaps being the most famous stripper in the world is a dubious honor, but it’s all Louise’s and she’ll take it.

"Gypsy" has a huge cast. Rose picks up children, and the boys are mostly named for the cities where she found them: the aforementioned Tulsa, L.A. (Steve Roma), and Yonkers (Evan Fornachon). Angie (Mike Hodges) is the exception to the name rule, unless his is another variation on Los “Angeles.” These are fine, energetic dancers and singers who may have trouble looking like they aren’t very good. All the little kids are adorable, and when they are shuffled off the stage during a strobe sequence to be replaced by their adult counterparts, the trick earned applause. Living 10 or so to a hotel room and subsisting on Chinese food, the delicate Louise still thrives in her way, sewing costumes and playing the front end of a cow, but June is constricted, even though she does receive preferential treatment. Both girls dream of a normal life. They have a lovely voice blend on their duet “If Mama Was Married.”

When the group has been reduced to playing burlesque, a dreadful step backwards to Rose, but hardly unusual in the waning days of vaudeville and the depths of the Great Depression, the supporting strippers are introduced. They coach Louise, soon to become “Gypsy,” in the finer points of stripping, focusing on ways to draw attention to themselves (and the fact that they aren’t really naked). Tessie Tura (Jenni Ryan), Mazeppa (Kimberly Still), and Electra (Paula Stoff Dean) are magnificently tacky, and each does an excellent job in her particular role. Wait until you get a load of Mazeppa’s costume! One wardrobe malfunction made an opening-night heroine out of Dean, acknowledged at curtain by Bell.

Speaking of costumes, the design credit goes to Alexandra Scibetta Quigley who also coordinated loanouts from the Rep and Stages, a nice bit of cooperation in the theatre community. Bell’s direction is thoughtful and does fulfill his goal of letting the songs and story speak for themselves amidst minimal scenery and props. Tyler Duenow and Justin Been are the lighting designer and board operator, respectively and Been with David Blake designed the set. Been is a very busy man in this show, as he is also stage manager (assisted by Steve Roma). Petersen directs the vocals, as well as the band, and JT Ricroft choreographed. (Ricroft is also a “stage dad,” since his dog Pedro appears as Rose’s beloved Chowsie.) Rose does love animals—she even insists on keeping the cow head from the old act to remind Gypsy where she came from, so we at least know she has a soft spot there that she shares with her daughter.

Actually, Mama has been married a lot—three times. Playing her is a real tightrope act because she is pushy, loud and obnoxious. She makes outrageous demands, and is a producer’s nightmare. Sometimes her act was booked because she was such a pain, but then Herbie, plagued with ulcers and having left show business to peddle candy, enters the fold as their agent simply because he loves Rose and the girls. Rose does love him too, but she uses him like she does everyone else, in the service of her unquenchable ambition. Noting where Sharn misses is actually a backhanded compliment: She just didn’t make me hate her enough for the final turn to work. But "Gypsy" is well worth the three hours you’ll invest. It is a beautiful show, and about 90% on the mark. You should let them entertain you cause you’ll have a real good time, yes sir. You’ll (bump). Have (grind). A real good time (bump AND grind).

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