BWW Reviews: Playhouse's GYPSY Offers Rose Her Turn

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BWW Reviews: Playhouse's GYPSY Offers Rose Her Turn

The collaboration of Jules Stein and Stephen Sondheim on GYPSY provided the late Ethel Merman with a career boost into immortality. What isn't familiar about this material? Everyone knows the general outline of the play itself - "Mama" Rose is "Mommie Dearest" without the wire hangers; at the beginning of the play, she practically declares war on a quiet home life and, taking with her daughters June (the precocious and "pretty" one) and Louise (the shy and recessive one), she practically declares war on domesticity and seeks to channel her dreams through their success.

Rose may be overbearing, but she isn't so far removed from other heroines whom we admire as much as we dread (Scarlett O'Hara, anyone?); she truly is a force of nature as she bullies her way from theatre to theatre, collecting and discarding others, constantly asking herself if this one or that will prove an advantage or a threat. Nothing will deter this dragon lady from success for her children. In this respect, she is a singing version of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' THE GLASS MENAGERIE.

GYPSY's quiet center in the midst of all this is, of course, the intelligent and generally ignored Louise, who is intuitively noting all the contents of Mama's "bag of tricks" and will, ultimately, emerge from her own cocoon and, instead of spread bright wings, shed them.

Age doesn't always have its advantages, but I have an edge here in that I well recall the real "Louise" (or "Gypsy Rose Lee") and her less famous sister, the actress June Havoc. (June may not be the main heroine here, but we admire her determination to make her own way in life and to have the courage to do so. In reality, Havoc was a very interesting and intelligent dramatic actress, and I well recall her guesting on many dramatic television series in the 1960's.)

GYPSY's "Mama Rose" has been interpreted by so many wonderful actress/singers - Merman, of course; Tyne Daly; Bette Midler (marvelous in a television incarnation of the play); and others. Suitably, in the energetic new production at playhouse, the role falls to one of Memphis' great musical talents, Carla McDonald; and what's not to love there? A strong performer, Ms. McDonald not only nails every number, but closes the show with an exhilarating, powerful "if this world were only fair" showstopper, "Rose's Turn. " Rose, as Walt Whitman once described himself, is "too large to contain multitudes." She is a larger-than-life persona, and Ms. McDonald's towering stature and emotional power allow her to take hold of this number and shatter the theatre with it. This should be a signature role for her.

As the beleaguered and beguiled "Herbie," Barclay Roberts offers an important contrast to "Mama Rose." At first glance, he could be a distant cousin to Arthur Miller's "Willy Loman" - but on closer inspection, he is his own man. While "Willy" has the kind of desperate drive to reach the heights that "Rose" has set for her children, "Herbie" is much more realistic; a genuine and caring soul, he finally realizes that "Mama Rose" has thorns, and he accepts that his little caboose can never hold the tracks behind Rose's runaway engine. He may not have the big numbers (in the film, he was portrayed by Karl Malden, never accused of being a singer), but he is necessary. Once he walks away, it's sad not only for what he is losing, but for what Rose herself will be missing in her life.

As the sisters "Louise" and "Baby June," Leah Beth Bolton and Caroline Simpson are well cast - these two even look like sisters. Simpson's "June," tired of being molded into something she's not, registers brooding and sarcasm well (note the lyrics Sondheim has given her in "If Momma Was Married"); once she bolts, however, the reticent "Louise" is Mama's consolation prize - and, were it not for her own inner strength and resilience , her "sacrificial lamb." It is affirming to witness the emergence of the future star, and Leah Beth Bolton gives the part the developmental arc it deserves. When she finally achieves stardom and develops a commanding presence of her own, it has been well earned; and she stands her ground nicely in the ultimate confrontation between mother and daughter.

Of note, too, are the performances of Richie MacLeod as the restless "Tulsa," and those audience favorites "Tessie Tura," "Mazzeppa," and "Electra" (Kim Sanders, Kathy Caradine, and Jeanna Juleson). (Rebecca Powell's costuming of these three is clever and amusing.)

Memphis wunderkind Jordan Nichols has added yet another notch to his theatrical belt; he obviously respects the material and the talent with which he has been blessed. Music director Renee Kemper exerts her usual mastery directing the talented band, and Mark Guirguis has captured the milieu of a vaudeville long lost. Through June 1. Photo courtesy of Playhouse on the Square.

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Joseph Baker I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from 1971 until 2007. When I retired, I was Chairman of the English Department and moderator of the Film Society. I have always been involved in the arts, and upon retirement I pursued my interests in painting (watercolors, acrylics, oils) and sketching (charcoal, pen and ink, graphite), ultimately resulting in a one-man show at WKNO Gallery in 2013. Having taught American, British, and World Drama, I have always had an interest in local theatre; and my reviews of plays at such venues as Theatre Memphis, Playhouse on the Square, and Circuit Playhouse have been posted on FACEBOOK and CALLBOARD in Memphis.


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