Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Gypsy is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the strip tease artist who got her start in the heyday of burlesque and morphed into a TV game show celebrity in the 1960s. It is about how Gypsy's mother Rose dominated her childhood, along with her sister June, pushing them both into a vaudeville act at early ages, dragging them around the country in search of bookings, staying in fleabag hotels, never allowing them to attend school, and not even letting them know their real ages, lest they be thought too old for a juvenile act. June was the favored one, whom Rose pushed into the spotlight in pursuit of stardom, first as "Baby June" and when she outgrew that moniker, as "Dainty June," singing and dancing in acts that at best rose to the level of mediocre. Louse played second fiddle in these routines, usually dressed as a boy. After June runs off, to escape her Mama's total control over her life as much as to marry one of the back-up singer-dancers in their act, Rose shifts her gaze and decides it is Louise, not June, who will live out her own ambitions to become a star. This does come to pass, but not as Rose had expected. In the end, Gypsy indeed has become a star, but on her own terms, and Rose must finally confront her own demons and disappointments that she spent a lifetime projecting onto her daughters.
This show has truly great songs, with music composed by one of the greatest of all Broadway tunesmiths, Jule Styne, and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, following his impressive premiere as a lyricist (before he took on writing both words and music) for West Side Story. The deceptively simple "Let Me Entertain You" is first used as the cloying signature tune in Baby June's act, and later becomes the perfect vehicle for Louise, transformed into Gypsy, to make her entry into the art of the strip tease. "Some People" puts Rose's unstoppable ambition front and center, and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is Rose's paean to unvarnished optimism at a time when things are horrifically falling apart around her, bringing down the act one curtain and the house. "Rose's Turn," the ultimate eleven o'clock number, puts Rose, at last in the spotlight, where her ego goes up in flames.
As good as these and other songs are, as funny and literate as Arthur Laurents' book is, this show about the obsession to be a starif not on your own, then through your childrendemands a star performance, and boy, oh, boy, does this production deliver. Michelle Barber starts off strident and determined, and builds up steam from there, becoming obsessive, delusional, and unbearable, beating down her daughters and Herbie, her long-suffering manager who hangs on in hopes of becoming her husband. Barber's strong voice brays, with growing forcefulness fueled by growing torment within. While she can stand center stage and command all eyes, she can also tiptoe behind Baby June's performance to pick up a dropped prop, and slip in a whisk off stage, like a theater elf. She can also seduce ("Small World") and charm, as in "You'll Never Get Away From Me," sung to keep Herbie on his leash. This is a performance that will be talked about as a highlight of the season, and long after.
Cat Brindisi (Michelle Barber's real-life daughter) is terrific as Louise, timid and tired of being overlooked for years, then pushed to be something she isn't, and finally to discover a way to claim all that for herself, reinventing herself as Gypsy Rose Lee. Brindisi captures poignantly the stages in Louise's journey, the deep wounds she suffers, and the defenses she creates to become her own woman. Shinah Brashears captures June's years of frustration metastasizing into anger, seeing through Mama's schemes. Her wistful duet with Brindisi "If Mama Were Married" is one of many highlights. As Herbie, Tod Petersen perfectly captures the patience and good-heartedness that has allowed Herbie to stand by Rose for so many years, and he sings with a warm lilt. Actually, this Herbie could be a little more gruff with Rose. He caves in to her time and again, but one would expect a bit more of a fighting spirit, a better sparring partner.
Tyler Michael plays Tulsa, part of the "Dainty June and Her Farmboys" act, who secretly is planning an act of his own ("All I Need Now Is the Girl" well sung and danced like a dream). Michaels bring his natural grace and charm to the role. In act two, he dons drag to play Electra, one of the three strippers who advise Louise about success in their business in the hilarious "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Emily Jansen is Tessie Tura and Kate Beahen is Mazeppa, the other two strippers in the number, and both handily hold their own in this sure showstopper. The rest of the cast and ensemble play various featured parts effectively, including young Zoe Hollander as Baby June and Victoria Wyffels as Baby Louise, and other child performers who are part of the early scenes.
Michael Matthew Ferrell's choreography works well for the vaudeville routinesJune and Louise's various acts, devised by Rose, are entertaining enough, but not too impressive (after all, these are supposed to be pretty marginal acts), and incorporates many comic touches. The choreography for "All I Need Now Is the Girl" is swell, and the musical staging for "Together" and "You'll Never Get Away from Me" help to bring those songs to life, fleshing out shifts in feelings between characters. In reality, though it plays out on a show business palette, Gypsy is not a show that calls for big splashy production numbers, and its strength is in its powerful intimate moments, which are well played under Peter Rothstein's razor sharp direction.
Denise Prosek does a wonderful job as music director, leading the band to sound much deeper and full bodied than one would expect of just six musicians. However, Gypsy has one of the greatest of all musical overtures, and it is omitted in this production. Styne was a rare theater composer who wrote his own overtures rather than delegating that task to others, and Gypsy was his best (with Funny Girl a close second). I missed hearing its enveloping melodies and mounting excitement as a lead-in to the show.
The set gives the appearance of a musical comedy nightmare, with piles of old props, stage devices, costumes, furnishings and what not heaped behind the playing area. It is as if every artifact of every show Rose dragged her daughters through were assembled, arranged by ejection from a popcorn maker. A proscenium descends over the playing area to frame it as one bit of theater after another, as Rose lived life as a series of dramatic episodes. Titles above identify the location and theme of each scene. The costumes are quite beautiful, detailed to reflect the story's 1920s and 1930s time frame. Lighting design allows the large show to focus on its many intimate moments, and an especially effective sequence uses strobe lighting to pass over time from the "Baby June" to the "Dainty June" era.
An extra special touch is the knowledge that Rose had her daughters' act booked for a time in the Pantages, vaudeville circuit, including the Minneapolis Pantages. Seeing this show performed on a stage where June and Louise actually appeared brings a chill and adds a sense of reality to the story. Even with parts of it fictionalized for the stage, the underlying truthparents who push their children, even to the point of abuse, to compensate for their own unhappinessis a real issue that continues to warrant attention. Gypsy manages to do this with such poignancy and power, yet with such elegance of style, combined into a robust entertainment. In its bones, it is a great show. In this production, and with Michelle Barber's performance, it is a must-see event.
Gypsy, a co-production of Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, continues through March 13, 2016 at the Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $31.50 - $56.50. For tickets call 612-455-9525 or go to www.hennepintheatretrust.org/events.
Book: Arthur Laurents; Music: Jule Styne; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Director: Peter Rothstein; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Choreography: Michael Matthew Ferrell; Set Designer: Michael Hoover; Costume Designer: Alice Fredrickson; Lighting Designer: Mary Shabatura; Associate Lighting Designer: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: Alex Ritter; Wig Designer: Paul Bigot; Props Master: Abbee Warmboe; Associate Props Master: Benjamin David Olsen; Production Manager: Dylan Wright; Production Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Director: Katie Kreitzer; Assistant Choreographer: Krysti Wiita; Assistant Costume Designer: Kathleen Martin; Assistant Lighting Designer: Micayla Thebault-Spieker.
Cast: Michelle Barber (Rose), Kate Beahen (Mazeppa), Shinah Brashears (June, Agnes, Renee), Cat Brindisi (Louise), Carley Clover (Baby Louise), Zoe Hollander (Balloon Girl), Emily Jansen (Tessie Tura), Tyler Michaels (Georgie, Tulsa, Electra), Eriq Nelson (Uncle Jocko, Pop, Weber, Kringelein, Mr. Goldstone, Miss Cratchitt, Pasty, Announcers, Phil), Tod Petersen (Herbie), Derek Priestly (Yonkers, Cigar), Matthew Rubbelke (Angie), Josie Turk (Clarence), Edward Williams Jr. (L.A., Bougeron-Cochon), Victoria Wyffels (Baby June).
Ensemble: Mario Esteb, Andrew Imm, Peter Lindell, Duncan Reyburn, Alejandro Vega