For its first show of the season Boston’s Lyric Stage, which often produces musical theatre pieces, chose Arthur Laurents’, Jule Styne’s, and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. Gypsy is considered by many critics, scholars, and theatre artists as one of the greatest musicals of the mid-20th century when American musical comedy turned into musical theatre, a more well-rounded genre in which the narrative and characterization were on par with the songs, where comedy could remain an integral part of the show or be dropped.
In 1959, Ethel Merman created the leading role of Mama Rose, a woman dedicated to fulfilling her dream of seeing her two daughters become show business stars, who in Merman’s version was funny, cruel, selfish, powerful, and at times loving. Her loud (and for some abrasive) mezzo-soprano voice and her belting style were inimical.
Since the original closed in 1961, Gypsy has been revived four times on Broadway with Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, and Patti Lupone as the lead. Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, and Patti Lupone won a Tony award, while Bernadette Peters was nominated. What their performances have in common is that their interpretations are less vulgar, tough, lower class, and over the top than Merman’s.
At the Lyric Stage Leigh Barrett, a well-known local performer, is excellent as Rose. Her voice is strong and rich and she creates a complex character who at first seems to have her two daughters’ interests at heart. She pushes them, particularly June the younger and gifted one, to become vaudeville stars, oblivious to the fact it is a dying form. Louise, the other sister is aware that she can neither sing nor dance like June, given that Rose casts her as the front of a four legged animal. Rose puts together a small company of kids whom she drags across the country during the Depression trying to find an opening for them. Early on, Baby June is played by Margot Anderson-Song, a skilled acrobat, and the young Louise by Cate Galante. A fourth member of this disconnected family is Herbie (Steven Barkhimer) a former candy salesman, now their booking agent. He yearns to marry Rose.
By the end of the first act, the children have grown up although Rose insists they present themselves as preadolescents to push their flagging careers. The new June (Kira Troilo) aware of her potential, her sexual feelings and frustrated by Rose’s controlling ways takes off on her own. It is left to the supposedly talentless Louise to save herself and her mother by becoming a stripper. To her surprise and Rose’s Louise becomes a hit as Gypsy Rose Lee through her ironic sense of humor, the ability to control her audience through her flirtatiousness and the fact that she never revealed all, which left her fans pining for more. Her good looks which her mother ignored throughout her childhood certainly were an asset.
As Gypsy Rose Lee, Kristen Salpini shines, perhaps because she now has a character of strength to play. Since the show was created as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, the other roles are underwritten. Even in the second act after becoming Gypsy Rose Lee the character has only one solo, “Let Me Entertain You.”
The symbolic set by Janie E. Howland makes good use of the theatre’s stage. A proscenium arch, gold in color, from which hang red curtains is placed upstage. Under the arch are two screens shaped like fans which without overdoing it represent Gypsy Rose Lee’s victory and Mama Rose’s loss. Her daughters have become stars on their own, while Rose has lost those whose lives she dominated including the adoring Herbie.
Rafael Jaen’s costumes are clever and appropriate. The young Louise outfitted in black and white as the front of an animal is a sight to behold, while as Gypsy Rose Lee she is done up in a variety of sexy outfits.
Rachel Bertone directed and choreographed the show with equal talent. It is well blocked, which is not always the case in three quarter round stages. Unlike many productions on this style of stage, the actors were directed towards the sides and not just the front, so that the audience was not cheated. Although the running time of the show is two hours and forty-five minutes long with one intermission, she keeps it moving.
Gypsy plays through October 8.
Produced by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Bertone
Music Director, Dan Rodriguez
Scene design by Janie E. Howland
Costume Design by Rafael Jaen
Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr.
Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will
Remo Airaidi, David Alea, Margot Anderson-Song, Steven Berkhimer, Leigh Barrett, Anna Chensny, Ben Choi-Harris, Jordan Clark, Cate Galante, Shannon Lee Jones, Brady Miller, Davron S. Monroe, Jessica Quaranto, Kathy St. George, Kirsten Salpini, Kira Troilo, Todd Yard