By Richard Campbell
In the history of musical theatre, Arthur Laurent’s book for Gypsy looms large over every writer in the genre, not merely because of Stephen Sondheim’s excellent pairing with time tested tunes by Jule Styne, but for the show’s multifaceted cast of characters and its tricky switch from fabulous farce to light pathos. Based in part on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the show originally premiered in 1959, a pretty different time in musical theater. Gypsy looked back upon the Vaudeville and Burlesque past from the post war vantage point, for audiences then were only a few generations removed from the nineteen twenties and thirties. The appreciation for innocent campiness that made it a cathartic release then, works almost as well to make it is a nostalgic time piece now.
This is a big production mounted very adroitly on the little Lyric Stage by director Rachel Bettone, who uses the cast well to instinctively deliver fine theatrics and tight knit choreography. Leigh Barrett is such a commanding Rose, portraying the persistently troublesome and quixotic stage Mom with a set of vocal chops and veteran timing that is vibrant all night. Besides the marathon performance, this role is a difficult one to own in front of experienced theater goers who have seen movie and stage versions over the years. Ms. Barrett bears particular notice for navigating well that fine line between being too brassy to be realistic, playing out farce with finesse, and singing with resolute meaning. She relishes in the role like a true diva.
Kira Troilo mocks out the sassy, talented daughter June with an over the top parody and comic timing reminiscent of Carol Burnett as she matches vocal ability with good ensemble work. Kirsten Salpini muddles just right as the awkward daughter Louise, until her moment to shine with new found defiant sensuality as a burlesque girl in the second act. Steve Berkheimer, who is more of a straight actor than a musical theater guy, holds his own as the gentleman foil Herbie, a retired show biz agent who rescues Rose for years while she relentlessly projects her show business aspirations upon her daughters. Dance captain Brady Miller as Tulsa exemplifies the on point dancing that raises the bar on complex choreography, well transitioned into character acting.
The doubling and tripling of roles among the supporting cast is enviable as they create a parade of new people for Rose and her daughters to encounter throughout their moribund theatrical careers. Kathy St. George stands out in contrasting roles of zany Mazeppa and ornery Cratchitt. Todd Yard as the sarcastic kid’s show host Uncle Jocko reveals a devilish sense of timing and vocal innuendo. Shannon Lee Jones as Tessie Tura lays down comic-burlesque with Jordan Clark as Electra, wowing the second act with eminent fleshiness in “Gotta Have a Gimmick”. The kids in this show are spectacular- funny, grinning their way through acrobatic skills, fast footwork, and snappy slapstick. Margot Anderson- Song as Baby June splits her way into the audience’s hearts in the Newsboys number, as Cate Galante portraying Young Louise, presents spry athleticism with witty charm.
Many people don’t realize the sleight of hand that the kid’s numbers provide in this show. A good measure of the intentional corniness is to embarrass serious minded adults enough to disarm them in time for the strident pathos of Rose in Act II. Of course, the body of the show would be nothing without the unseen live orchestra, which under the direction of Dan Rodriguez is small but powerful. There were moments when the feeling of the time period was missing in the production, but by the final numbers set out in front of the giant folding fans and names in lights, those minor modern distractions were forgotten. Between the clever staging, manic choreography and spot on voices, the show moves along at a clip that defies its nearly three-hour length. In an America that has lost most of its charm, and all pretense of innocence, Gypsy offers a nostalgic look back to theater of yesteryear. Playing through October 8th at the Lyric Stage, for tickets go to: http://www.lyricstage.com/