Lyric Stage's "Gypsy": How Gypsy Rose

Leigh Barrett in "Gypsy"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In Stephen Sondheim's memoir Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics 1954-1981 with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, he describes Gypsy Rose Lee as “the burlesque queen who put the 'tease' into striptease”; no one could put it better. She is the title role (but not the central character) in the musical Gypsy, based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (born “Louise”) and her relationship with her mother Rose. It's the season opener for Lyric Stage Company (which will also present Sondheim's most recent work, Road Show, this coming January). Gypsy is accurately described by Sondheim as his first opportunity to write lyrics for characters of considerable complexity. The show's Book by Arthur Laurents and Music by Jule Styne portray a protagonist who is profoundly self-deluded, a real challenge for an actor as an instrument to convey considerable dramatic subtext. When it premiered in 1959, it was immediately and universally recognized as a watershed work, ran for over 700 performances and received 9 Tony Award nominations, though it didn't win any (it was the year of Fiorello! and The Sound of Music). Apart from providing many a female star in subsequent revivals with a terrific chance to shine, (such as Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone, all Tony winners for the role), it established itself in the eyes and ears of numerous scribes as the nearly perfect piece of musical theater.

What it's not, at least for the most part, is a musical comedy. Though it has quite a few funny lines and a couple of comic numbers, it remains at heart (and it has a lot of that beneath its true grit) a tragic story of wishes unfulfilled on the part of Mama, “Madame Rose” (Leigh Barrett), who wants desperately to create the success for her offspring, first her daughter June (Kira Troilo) then her other daughter Louise (Kirsten Salpini), that she herself never had as a performer. The other main character is Herbie (Steven Barkhimer), in love with Rose but not with the theater, a former talent agent turned candy salesman. As Ethan Mordden observed in his book on musicals of the 1950's, Coming Up Roses, this dysfunctional family of stage mother, favorite daughter and unloved daughter, along with the ever-faithful Herbie, is surely atypical for a musical at that time. There are a few memorable turns such as the inspired dance number by Tulsa (Brady Miller), the chorus boy with his own dreams, and the comic highpoint,You Gotta Have a Gimmick, a lesson given by three strippers to the innocent Louise, here delivered by Mazeppa (Kathy St. George, who explains she “bumps it with a trumpet”), Electra (Jordan Clark, who maintains “if you wanna make it, twinkle while you shake it”, though Sondheim preferred, but was overruled, the line “shake it till you break it”), and Tessie Tura (Shannon Lee Jones, whose stripper name is an outrageously clever musical pun). The creative team includes excellent Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez, fluid Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland (using vaudeville billing cards to denote changes of place and time, notably the reference to Omaha as terminal), and fine period Costume Design by Rafael Jaen, as well as crucial Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr. and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. The entire production was Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Bertone (on a par with her wonderful work last season for Moonbox Productions' Barnum), whose dance experience greatly enhances the movement of the show, beginning with her brilliant accompaniment to the wondrous overture (not to be revealed here). As Electra might put it, she does it with a switch.

Kirsten Salpini, Jordan Clark, Kathy St. George & Shannon Lee Jones in "Gypsy"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The score ranges from the hope-in-denial anthem Everything's Coming Up Roses to the plaintive ballad Small World and the jaunty Together Wherever We Go as well as the various versions of May We/Let Me Entertain You, first sung by successive children's choruses, inventively altered for a grown-up version. The “eleven o'clock number”, Rose's Turn, is still stunning theater no matter how often you've heard it before. Jule Styne was never better, and the growing prowess of Sondheim was, and remains, striking (especially in such internal rhymes as “egos”/”amigos”). About the only, and relatively minor, flaw in the work is the frequency of various permutations of Baby/Dainty June and Her Newsboys/Farmboys/Toreadorables. While it helps convey the passage of time and the increasing hopelessness of the family's rise and fall, the authors go to that well once too often.

That's a small price to pay, though, for experiencing a really great show with a truly great cast.
Madame Rose is arguably the finest female musical role ever written, and this is Leigh's Turn; Barrett's is a performance that sings out for superlatives, a towering apex to a career filled with memorable turns. Was there ever a more chilling entrance than her command to “sing out Louise”? Her Rose (monstrous though the character is), coupled with the initially timorous twosome of the untalented Louise and the human doormat that is Herbie, all somehow manage to make us root for them against all odds, and despite their flaws. Was there ever such a trio of difficult and demanding roles? And all three nail them. As musicals go, this is a keeper, one which bills itself as “a musical fable”. At one point, Rose proclaims that everyone needs something impossible to hope for, even as the moral of the fable might be resisting how a mother's drive can threaten to destroy her brood, virtually eating her young.

So one piece of advice: between now and October 8th, by all means go, and let them entertain you!

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