Friday, April 12, 2013

GYPSY: A MUSICAL FABLE • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog continues its trend of not backing away from ambitious shows with its current production, Gypsy -- one of the most highly regarded book musicals in the canon of musical theatre.  Loosely based on the memoirs of famed striptease performer, Gypsy Rose Lee, there are many reasons this musical that premiered in 1959 about the stage mother of all stage mothers is regarded in such high esteem.  With a deeply-layered book by Arthur Laurents, clever lyrics by my hero, Stephen Sondheim and splendid, intricate music by Jule Styne, Gypsy not only has a reverence for "showbiz" itself and more than a few classic numbers (beginning with an old-school overture that you should definitely keep your pie hole shut for), but also, it centers around the complicated character, Mama Rose, who roots for and alienates those close to her.  It also has not one, but two major character arcs, where at the start there's a strong one and a weak one, and by the end, the strongest has become the weakest, and the weakest becomes the strongest.  Love…

Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose) and Ken Haller (Herbie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It picks up in the early 1920's at "Uncle Jocko's Kiddie Show" in Seattle.  Mama Rose (Deborah Sharn) is chasing after fame with her daughters, June (Lily McDonald) and Louise (Isabella Koster) in tow.  Rose is convinced that "Baby June" is destined to be a star, and if it kills her, she's determined to make that happen.  Along the way Rose meets Herbie (Ken Haller), a former show business agent and current candy seller.  He's attracted to Rose's moxie, and agrees to accompany Rose and her rag-tag vaudeville troupe to do what he can to help her book gigs, even if his nagging ulcer doesn't agree.

Evan Fornachon, Mike Hodges, Zach Wachter (seated),
Jennifer Theby-Quinn (June), Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose),
Michael Monsey (Mr. Goldstone),
Ken Haller (Herbie), and Steve Roma.
Photo credit: John Lamb
With that marvelous time-honored strobe-light transition from the young traveling company onstage to the older kids, years later, Rose is still at it, pilfering restaurant silverware, making motel blankets into coats, and chasing after the last threadbare shreds of vaudeville fame.  While her "less talented" daughter Louise (Sabra Sellers) plays along, yearning for connection with her mom, June's (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) eyes are wide open to the fact that their act that's hardly changed in forever is crap, they are still being dressed as children, and she's driven away to marry a member of the chorus, Tulsa (Zach Wachter), by Rose's relentless pursuit of the Orpheum Circuit.  Rose ends up re-shifting her attention to poor Louise in the show's wonderful act one closer, "Everything's Coming Up Roses".

Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose),
Sabra Sellers (Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee),
and Ken Haller (Herbie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
They eventually end up in Burlesque -- where vaudeville acts go to die.  Three of the resident strippers, Tessie Tura (Jenni Ryan), Mazeppa (Kimberly Still) and Electra (Paula Stoff Dean) teach Louise, now called "Gypsy Rose Lee", the fine art of stripping in another one of the show's memorable tunes, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick".  Fortunes are reversed as Louise discovers she has a knack for this kind of work, and Rose sees herself playing a smaller and smaller role in Louise's life.  Rose lays it all out there with a shout-out to who she really is with "Rose's Turn".

Gary Bell directs this show and the huge cast with laser-sharp focus, and all of the aspects of Gypsy come together beautifully.  Sharn in the tyrannical role of Mama Rose blew me away.  With a strong, full-bodied voice, she delivers all of her big numbers without missing a step.  Haller as Rose's boyfriend Herbie really conveyed a man weighed down by Rose's demands, but the fact that he still loves her is apparent -- though you can hardly blame him when he's finally forced to walk out.  Sellers as Rose's painfully shy daughter, Louise, makes a great impression with a heartbreakingly sweet rendition of "Little Lamb", and reacts with horror when Rose bursts into "Everything's Coming Up Roses".  Theby-Quinn once again shows her comedic skill and flair as June, and delivers a splendid "Dainty June and her Farmboys".  She, along with Sellers, hit the harmonies on the head in "If Mama Was Married", one of my personal favorites.  All of the kids in the cast were adorable and the aforementioned strippers, Ryan, Still and Dean knocked their number out of the park.

Sabra Sellers (Gypsy Rose Lee), Eileen Engel, Andy Kay,
Sierra Buffum.
Photo credit: John Lamb
The set, courtesy of David Blake and Justin Been, while simple enough to let the acting and singing carry the show, had some lovely details, like the little marquee panels that were changed throughout to inform time and place.  J.T. Ricroft contributes some terrific choreography, as well as lending his adorable little dog Pedro as Chowsie.  Alexandra Scibetta Quigley coordinated the magnificent array of costumes that were accommodated by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Stages St. Louis.  The members of the cast had head mics, but it seemed to me that they weren't "kicked on" until a number was being performed, deftly avoiding the issue of the cast being drowned out by the music.  Kudos!  Chris Petersen directed the sizable orchestra, and while the band could have been a little tighter, I can't imagine a more challenging score, and I have to admit, this is a score I love.  I wasn't disappointed.

Time to "bump it with a trumpet", folks!  With familiar, haunting, funny, sad and frightening things in the mix of this "King Lear" of musicals, if you're reading this, and you miss it, you're an idiot.  Ha!  Just kidding…


Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Book by Arthur Laurents
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Music by Jule Styne
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 20 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturday April 20 performances at 2pm and 8pm.

Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose), Ken Haller (Herbie), Sabra Sellers (Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee), Jennifer Theby-Quinn (Dainty June), Zach Wachter (Tulsa), Jenni Ryan (Tessie Tura, plus stage mother), Kimberly Still (Mazeppa, plus stage mother), Paula Stoff Dean (Electra, plus Miss Cratchitt), Lily McDonald (Baby June), Isabella Koster (Young Louise), Pedro Ricroft (Chowsie), Mature Men Roles: Michael Monsey, Charles Huevelman, Older Chorus Boys: Evan Fornachon, Mike Hodges, Steve Roma, Older Chorus Girls: Sierra Buffum, Eileen Engel, Andy Kay, Young Ensemble: Court Hyken, Lillian Kanterman, Ellie Lore and Fiona Scott.

Scenic design by David Blake and Justin Been; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; costume design and coordinator, Alexandra Scibetta Quigley (costumes courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Stages St. Louis); choreography by J.T. Ricroft; stage manager, Justin Been.

The Gypsy Band:
Director/keyboard, Chris Petersen; bass, Colin Lovett; flute and piccolo, Dedra Mason; percussion, Bob McMahon; reed I (alto saxophone and clarinet), Harrison Rich; reed II (clarinet and alto saxophone), Gabe Newsham; trumpet, Bill Hershey; trumpet (rehearsals) Ryan Foizey.

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