Richard Israel on Directing GYPSY for West Coast Ensemble


While Broadway has had several notable productions of the musical GYPSY, with star turns by Ethel Merman, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone, I was surprised to find that Los Angeles has not seen a major production of it since the original national tour in 1961. At the time, Merman recreated her performance for the tour which played the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera (now run by Broadway/L.A. at The Pantages).

Written by three of musical theatre's most beloved artists, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, whom we recently lost at age 93, it is the rags to riches story of Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous stripper in Burlesque history, and her singularly driven stage mother, Rose.

On May 13th, West Coast Ensemble and director Richard Israel will open a much-anticipated intimate staging of GYPSY that will run through July 3rd at the Theatre of Arts Arena Stage in Hollywood. Before he disappeared into tech rehearsals we sat down and talked about the production.

What made you decide to do a big musical like Gypsy but in an intimate setting?

We did a production of Three Tall Women as our last show in 2009 and Jan Sheldrick was really remarkable in it. I was watching her work and I had the thought, she could do GYPSY. We actually have a Mama Rose. Now cut to 2011. We were looking at doing our next musical and that was the first one that bubbled up. Nobody's ever done it small that I know of. Nobody does it big because it's too expensive to do big. Nobody does it.

And this isn't going to be a big lavish version with all the glitz and tits.

No, well, there are going to be tits. (He laughs) It's tits but no glitz, and I feel like that's right for the show because even though it's a big classic show biz musical, the only time it goes to a place of glitz and glamour is at the very end when Gypsy is stripping at Minsky's. Everything up until then is pretty tragic.

Is that why you're billing the show as "GYPSY...stripped?"

When I initially conceived the show I wanted a ghost light and a brick wall and a curtain, and that is predominantly what we are using, however, we are costuming the cast for real because I don't want it to look like a workshop. It is set in the early 1920s and '30s and I wanted everyone to look like their clothes are too small for them and worn at the elbows and probably just need to be thrown away.

I spoke to Rick Starr, our local expert on all things musical theatre, and he was excited about your concept because that's the way they did the run thrus in 1959 with Ethel Merman - brick wall, ghost light, no costumes, but a few props. The set was still being built. His dad was in the orchestra and he used to say that Ethel would have her dinner break with the musicians between the matinee and evening performances because she couldn't stand the actors.

That sounds about right.

This is the first time you're producing a show in this theatre. How is it working in a new space?

It's remarkable. When I was shopping around for a theatre I looked at the Arena and it's like it was built for this show. It's this gorgeous theatre that was built as an adjunct space to the Egyptian Theatre. It was originally a 150 seat movie theatre that they later took down to 99 seats, and it has a big, big stage - as big as the Colony.

Who is designing your set?

It's the usual suspects for us. Stephen Gifford is doing the set. Lisa Katz is doing lights. Becca Kessin is doing sound and Zale Morris is doing costumes...and they're all great.

And your choreographer?

John Todd. He did Merrily We Roll Along with me and I love working with him. When you look at him you just feel better about the world, and it's not that he's just easy to work with, because that doesn't do him justice.

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Ellen Dostal In addition to being part of the west coast Broadway World team, Ellen also publishes two popular Southern California Theatre Blogs - Musicals in LA and Shakespeare in LA. An actress, singer and voiceover artist, she is also a producer with the Academy for New Musical Theatre, and works with the development of new musicals across the country.

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