insightful in-depth reviews

14, Jun 2017
Rachel Camp and ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Gypsy: musical shows signs of aging

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Gypsy. Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Terrence J. Nolen directed at the Arden Theatre, May-June 2017.

Gypsy is a Broadway classic, and Mary Martello is a logical choice for the lead role. In this Arden Theatre production, the veteran performer captured the core of a showbiz pro who knows theater from the bottom up. Martello was excellent from the start when she powerfully belted “Some People,” where she demonstrated joy that she was going to make the world notice her.

Martello’s commanding performance culminated in the shattering breakdown (“Rose’s Turn”) when she realizes her presence is no longer needed, or wanted, by her daughters. When Rose scornfully imitated Louise’s strip act, her bumps were defiant rebukes of her ungrateful elder daughter.

Aspects were missing, however. Martello appeared as a mature woman. The fable plays best when Rose reveals the childlike side of her personality; her tyrannical behavior becomes understandable when we see it as childish tantrum based on the fact that she was deserted by her own mother at an early age. I’m concerned with her personality, not a calendar, but let’s not forget the facts. When Louise was seven and her baby sister June was six, they were part of a vaudeville act which is portrayed in this show — and Rose was only 28.

While Rose is an overbearing stage mom, we are drawn to her because she’s a charmer. When she tells theater-owners that they don’t know their own business, we cheer for this cookie who tells off the powerful; and that charm was minimal here. Also, Rose should have a fetching appeal that would cause male drivers to stop their cars and give her a hitch (as they do in Act I) and would make Herbie fall for her at first glance, as he does.

I had the pleasure of knowing playwright Arthur Laurents because he was the cousin of one of my closest friends, and he said that Rose should be “sexy.”

The production by Terrence Nolen was faithful to the classic script while adding some interesting visuals. During the overture, Nolen showed a dejected Rose observing glimpses of the drama to come. At key spots during daughter Louise’s transformation from shy, awkward wallflower to stardom, Nolen had the character share the stage with the image of herself when younger.

I was seated next to a young man who had never seen Gypsy. He knew that some aficionados believe Gypsy is the best musical of all time, and he was curious. His skepticism forced me to look at this classic with fresh eyes. Indeed, he made me see defects that I had overlooked for decades.

Gypsy is very long at nearly three hours, and there’s much repetition. I’ve always enjoyed the send-ups of vaudeville as Baby June and her troupe do “Let Me Entertain You” repeatedly in different cities. But couldn’t the point be made more succinctly? And once we learn that her children would like Rose to marry Herbie and leave the vaudeville circuit, do we need to hear it reiterated? My companion wanted to know if audiences around 1960 were so slow on the uptake that they had to be continually reminded of the essentials of the plot.

Laurents said that he resisted director Jerome Robbins’s idea that the show should be a panorama of vaudeville. Laurents believed the focus should be on family relationships, not on a history of theater. Rose — and Louise — yearn for recognition, and for love. At the end of the play, Rose admits that everything she did was, selfishly, for her: “I wanted to be noticed.” “Like I wanted you to notice me,” says her daughter.

When Gypsy opened in Philadelphia (1959, pre-Broadway) it included jugglers and acrobats, inserted by Robbins and hated by Laurents. In addition, Robbins added a burlesque scene of a lecherous Santa coming down a chimney with a gift for a little girl. “For me, Santa?”

“For you, little girl. Now come right over here and sit on Santa’s face.”

That vulgarity was cut when the show left Philadelphia. Laurents, however, retained the multiple vaudeville routines which now seem to slow the progress of the drama. I’m torn; I treasure the vaudeville scenes but I now agree that they do distract from Gypsy’s core.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are brilliant, and superior to his other youthful attempts to write words to the music of a more-experienced composer: Do I Hear a Waltz, which he wrote with Richard Rodgers, and West Side Story which he wrote with Leonard Bernstein.

Nolen’s production gave us vivid showbiz presentations, with smooth transitions to scenes of Rose and her family. All of the supporting roles were meticulously cast and directed. Alexa Hunt as Baby June was a perfect picture of narcissism egged on by a pushy mom. She was precociously adorable with a dazzling smile. Veronica Nardo was boyish as the future stripteaser, young Louise.

The two of them transfigured into the perky Rachel Camp doing spectacular splits and high kicks as a Dainty June whom we hated to see disappear at the end of Act I, and Caroline Dooner as the hesitant “Gypsy Rose Louise” whose name was erroneously proclaimed by a theater announcer as “Gypsy Rose Lee,” thus christening a new superstar. Camp was superb with her singing, dancing and dramatic portrayal of her anger. Dooner impressed with her transformation from awkwardness to strength.

Veteran actor Anthony Heald was fine as the put-upon agent Herbie, while David Bardeen colorfully impersonated a succession of house managers. Monica Horan was properly acid as an officious theatrical secretary, then became the world-weary stripper known as Tessie Tura. She was joined in the burlesque routine by the multi-talented Joliet F. Harris and Meghan Strange. Malik Akil aced the spectacular coming-of-age dance, “All I Need is the Girl” which choreographer Jenn Rose based on Jerome Robbins’s original creation.

“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “Some People”, “Small World”, “Together” and all the other great Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim songs were led by Ryan Touhey’s fine band which was in tiers on both sides of the stage. Richard St. Clair’s costumes vividly recalled the period.

Below, Nardo and Martello.