The story of Gypsy the musical, is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque stripper, and focuses on her mother (Rose), the ultimate stage mother, as she raises her two daughters (June and Louise) to perform on stage during the peak and fall of vaudeville performers in the 1920’s to the early 1930’s. It reflects on their lives with each other and the lives of the characters that come and go through the years as they travel from gig to gig, stage to stage, and city to city.
Gypsy, book by Arthur Laurents, is often referred to as the “greatest” American musical by many theater audiences and critics a like. Its music, written by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is some of the most memorable in American musical history, including “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, “Together, Wherever We Go”, “Let Me Entertain You”, “Rose’s Turn”, and “Small World”. So with all this going for it, it is strange to think that this musical is not done more often than every 5-6 years by only 2-3 companies.
Last Saturday a sold out house gathered to watch CCCT’s production of Gypsy and I was fortunate to be among them. Even more fortunate was Director, Darren A.C. Carollo, to have found the talented Jessica Fisher to tackle the complicated and complex role of Momma Rose. From the moment she appears through the audience yelling “Sing Out, Louise!” she is poised, persuasive, and powerful. She is dedicated to the success of her “favorite” daughter and her sister. They are a team, their success is her success and this is not a woman that will fail.
The years that lapse during this show requires that two sets of daughters be cast to play Rose’s daughters. June (Jocelyn Purcell and later Olivia Hytha) is the talented baby of the act who is pushed in to the spotlight and Louise (Marianna Scott and later Morgan Frazer) plays the less talented older sibling that is relegated to play the newsboy and half of a dancing cow, “At least it is the front half”. June is eventually smothered by Rose’s attentions and Louise is so accommodating that she would do practically anything to get them.
The younger duo of sisters opens the show by auditioning for Uncle Jacko’s variety show while performing the first of many renditions of “(May We/Let Me) Entertain You”. The transition to the older sisters is done relatively seamlessly in the middle of a production number. The younger duo slips out the back and the older duo takes over. In my opinion, there is really only one number where the older duo of sisters has a chance to relate to each other on the same subject and that is in “If Momma Was Married”. Both girls have nice voices in the number, but unfortunately Frazer and Hytha missed the chance to connect as they seemed just as much at odds with each other as they were with Momma.
Every leading lady needs a love interest and in Rose’s case it is Herbie, portrayed wonderfully by Ryan Weible. He displays gritty, but confident compassion when it comes to Rose. He knows she will never change but is always hopeful that she will marry him so he can be the husband that sticks. Weible gives Herbie a backbone but makes it known he has a soft spot for both the children and Rose. The flirtatious banter between Rose and Herbie in “Small World” when they meet lures Herbie from salesman back to being a show business agent.
June eventually runs away with Tulsa, one of the boys that has been dancing with “Dainty June and Her Farmboys”, played by Jack Sale. They plan to get away but not before he gets his Fred Astaire moment in “All I Need Is the Girl”. Sale is a fine dancer, his technique and training are undeniable, but in this number he seemed tense and I would liked to have seen him have fun and enjoy this number more.
Fisher closes Act 1 with the notorious “Everything’s Coming up Roses”. Again she succeeds in pulling the audience back into believing in her no fail ways and always pushing forward attitude, just as she does with Herbie and Louise. Vocally here, Fisher pretty much hits a homer.
The second act opens with a rehearsal for “Madam Rose’s Toreadorables”. Louise has stepped in for June and it’s the same old act with a new name. Louise is not June though and is upset that Rose does not see her as Louise but as the replacement of June. In true I am never going to give up fashion, Rose rallies the troupe and then the trio, Herbie, Rose and Louise, unite for the enjoyable “Together, Wherever We Go”. It is a delight to see these three have fun with each other in this number.
The girls of burlesque bring to life a memorable number. “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” features Ali Lane, Noelle Guerin, and Kerry Chapman as Tessie Tura, Electra, and Miss Mazeppa. There were times the vocals were not clear in this number; however, this might have been because of the crowd reaction and the roars of audience encouragement. The costumer, Lisa Danz, did an excellent job on all the costumes, including one that lights up in this number.
After agreeing to finally marry Herbie, Rose delays the wedding so she can push Louise into the spotlight as the headliner in the Burlesque club. This pushes Herbie away for good as he does something she never thought he would and leaves her.
In the later part of the show, Frazer’s Louise evolves from the mousey young daughter who only desired her mother’s approval into a stripper that travels from town to town conveying the now seductive message, “Let Me Entertain You”.
Rounding out the cast, Carollo has assembled a fine band of Gypsy actors that come together to make this show the memorable evening that it is. Many of these actors handle multiple parts throughout the show and are note worthy. Joe Luper does an excellent job juggling the roles of Mr. Goldstone, the announcer, and joining the ensemble, while Ken Ray does not miss a beat performing the roles of Weber, Kringelein, Cigar, and Phil. Billy Raphael does an outstanding job as Uncle Jacko and later returns as Bourgen-Cochon.
The set used in this production is detailed and versatile. The entire stage can be inside or outside, an alley, a theater backstage with a loading dock, a dressing room, a bedroom, a railroad platform and of course a stage depending on the small details that change scene to scene. Designed by Colin Babcock, it incorporates three brick walls; a solid back wall, next on the audience left wall there is a door, window, and the power fuse box, and across the stage on the audience right wall there is a roll up door that cleverly hides a wagon that changes the set behind the scenes and rolls out when needed. There is a marquee above the stage adds to the vaudeville atmosphere and helps create the feel for the era.
The orchestra, under the direction of Musical/Vocal Director and piano player G. Scott Lacy, sounds much fuller than only 6 players. He conducts a remarkable sounding combo tucked in the side stage. Christina Lazo provides the classic and creative choreography complete with hitch kicks, soft shoes, twirls and an uh-uh-uh (*side note-this is a highly technical dance term) that entertains both the young and old audience members.
While the readers who know this show are probably yelling at the words on the page wondering why there was no mention of “Rose’s Turn”. Well after sitting here thinking about it, I learned a while back that it never hurts to save the best stuff for the big finish. It is to everyone’s benefit, that it appears Fisher knows that lesson as well. “Rose’s Turn” is woman’s combination of Jekyll’s “Confrontation” and Billy’s “Soliloquy”. It is self reflecting, pivotal, decisive and captivating; just like Jessica Fisher’s Momma Rose. If you don’t believe me, go see for yourself. If you do believe me, see it anyway. Remember, it’s live theater and there is something different for everyone every time you go.
The 5 W’s…
Contra Costa Civic Theater in El Cerrito is performing Gypsy through July 17th. Friday and Saturday shows at 8pm, and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$24. For information and reservations call 510-524-9132or visit www.ccct.org