Gypsy, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Jule Styne. Directed and choreographed by Todd Underwood.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The girl to go with ‘em."
Somehow, over the years since this classic musical made its Broadway debut in 1959, something has been lost in the translation. The word "gypsy" in a theatrical parlance refers to a performer, usually a dancer or singer in the chorus, who moves from show to show, from theater to theater, but it can also refer to the waifs and strays on the earth. The birthing of a Burlesque star, Gypsy Rose Lee, is what this musical is actually all about but just knowing that is not enough. In its first two incarnations the show’s title had a second line, three additional words, attached to it, but they have long since gone away and with them a hint to what the authors seemingly intended here. The subtitle was "A Musical Fable." The dictionary provides three possible explanations for the word "fable": a usually short narrative making an edifying or cautionary point. . .; a story about legendary persons and exploits; a falsehood: a lie. All three of these definitions apply to this musical at this time.
Gypsy Rose Lee’s story, told by herself in her 1956 autobiography "Gypsy," is a story about a legendary person and her exploits. It is also a veiled rendering of her history, a lie as shown in the autobiographies by her sister, actress June Havoc. We might as well also acknowledge that it makes both an edifying and cautionary point that talent, talent of any kind, requires nurturing and a caring overseer if it is to flourish and thrive. Louise, the future "Gypsy" is an overlooked gem in her family, used for her more obvious abilities of sewing and playing the front end of a cow in her sister’s Vaudeville act. Her possibilities only come to the fore when June, barely a teenager, runs off and marries a hoofer and ends up on the dance marathon circuit for years before coming back to Mama Rose and finding her way into Broadway and Hollywood stardom. Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and others may have written songs for June Havoc but she was never again the glorious and glamorous star that her ugly duckling sister Louise became.
The lesson in all of this is that nurturing your star is what show business success is all about. Without someone taking charge and making certain that things go well, bright shiners turn into black eyes and those quixotic stars often fade quickly into obscurity. At the Mac-Haydn Theatre the company has a resident star and they do not nurture and care for her as they should. How odd that this fact should come to light in a play about just that fact.
Monica M. Wemitt is playing Mama Rose. An Ethel Merman role that has attracted Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, it is an ideal part for this regional star that I cherish. Upon her first entrance in the current production in Chatham, New York, Wemitt received a standing-ovation and she had yet to utter no more than a half dozen words. For the balance of the first act she achieved a remarkable high in her scenes and a staggering blow in her songs. Standards such as "Some People," "Small World," "Mr. Goldstone," and "Everything’s Coming Up Roses" all proved too difficult for her vocal register. The right thing to do would have been to transpose these songs into a better key for her, a practice exercised everywhere in the theatrical world from Grand Opera at the Metropolitan to church and school groups. She would not have had to strain for high notes; nor would she have been forced to gulp for air and lose a word or a partial phrase. This is not a show that should do that to its star, especially when in the trio in Act Two "Together Wherever We Go" and in the staggering "Rose’s Turn" Wemitt turned in significantly brilliant renditions. Dear Theater People: Cherish our stars. Give them the help they need to continually succeed. It costs nothing, or next to nothing, to continue a career that is so worthwhile.
Playing her daughter Louise was Elizabeth Boyke whose future as a singing actress seems assured after this performance. Her transition from the ugly duckling to the beautiful swan was flawless and her strip-tease clearly annoyed an unhappy woman in the front row which was just about right for that performer/audience relationship and actually got a laugh from our side of the theater in the round.
In one of his finest performances in a season of excellent work, John Saunders turned Herbie, Rose’s man-friend, into a moving and sincere person (not something everyone has done) and his parting scenes with Rose were wonderfully played. Having worked together many times over the years Wemitt’s reactions to Herbie’s honesty aided Saunders performance immeasurably, another true sign of the level of stardom spoken of above. This will be a hard pair of performances to forget any time soon.
June is played by Kaitlyn Frank and she is a fine addition to the young women who have preceded her in the role. As the hoofer Tulsa, who steals Louise’s heart and June’s body, Eric Chambliss does a very neat job of acting and a fine job of dancing his dreams for Louise in the classic song "All I Need is the Girl." Gillian Hassert is a treat as Agnes.
Three women steal the show for a while, as these characters usually do, in the second act. Rhnea Wright-Ausmms as Electra, Ashley Kelly as Mazeppa and Meg Dooley as Tessie Tura throw one heck of a good "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and Dooley, especially in her scenes with Louise, is a very appealing seasoned stripper with a very specific Brooklyn accent. While all three women entertain brilliantly Dooley brings that little extra bit of pathos into the mix and she does it like the pro she is.
Kevin Gleason’s set is excellent for this theater in the round production as are Eric Franzen’s costumes (Jimm Halliday has contributed Monica Wemitt’s clothes). Andrew Gmoser understands what this show needs in the lighting department and he gives it everything he has. Two problems, though, marred this show’s bright spots: the trumpets in the orchestra needed a tuning and the orchestra itself, seemingly unable to follow the same downbeat, needed more rehearsal to create harmony and tempo similarities. Aligned to that was the rough handling of sound balance; too often the electrified orchestra overwhelmed the miked singers who weren’t getting the help they needed to overcome the distorted sound coming from the orchestra. I’d suggest dial-down the musicians.
Wemitt’s and Saunder’s and Boyke’s second act is wonderful to watch and hear. If there is no other reason other than that, and there is much to praise in act one, this is a performance to catch. But take the "fable" part of this show to heart and give the star what she deserves beyond the standing ovation. Give her the chance to shine as brightly as the moon did after the show on August 23.
Monica M. Wemitt; photo: provided
Kaitlyn Frank and elizabeth Boyke; photo: provided
Ashley Kelly and Meg Dooley; photo: provided
Gypsy plays through September 1 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre located at 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.MacHaydnTheatre.org