BWW Review: GYPSY Takes Off at Lyric Stage
Book and Lyrics by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Suggested by memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, Original Production by David Merrick and Leland Hayward, Entire production originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins; Directed & Choreographed by Rachel Bertone; Music Director, Dan Rodriguez; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Rafael Jaen; Lighting Design, Franklin Meissner, Jr.; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Assistant Director, Meredith Gosselin; Production Stage Manager, Nicky Carbone; Assistant Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Production Stage Manager (10/2-10/8) Diane McLean
CAST: Leigh Barrett, Kirsten Salpini, Kira Troilo, Steven Barkhimer, Brady Miller, David Alea, Todd Yard, Remo Airaldi, Kathy St. George, Jordan Clark, Shannon Lee Jones, Anna Chensny, Davron S. Monroe, Margot Anderson-Song, Cate Galante, Jessica Quaranto, Ben Choi-Harris
There are some words and phrases that suffer from overuse in theater reviews, diminishing their impact, and sometimes achieving the boy-who-cried-wolf status. Think of the musicals casually referred to as iconic, the performances hyped as tour de force, and the productions loudly labeled as MUST SEE. As much as a critic may enjoy many shows, these terms ought to be carefully rationed, or else run the risk of failing to generate the excitement deserved by that one truly outstanding production. Friends, let me proclaim, without hyperbole, that the Lyric Stage Company has hit the trifecta with their season opening iconic musical Gypsy, a virtual must see production, thanks to Rachel Bertone's direction and choreography, and Leigh Barrett's tour de force performance as Mama Rose.
Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy hit the Broadway stage in 1959, produced by David Merrick and Leland Hayward, and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Its stellar pedigree includes book and lyrics by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by some kid named Stephen Sondheim (his third show, and the last for which he was only the lyricist). It ran for 702 performances, garnering eight Tony nominations, and has enjoyed multiple revivals with an amazing roster of leading ladies, including Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone. Those are all giant footsteps to follow in, but if Bertone or Barrett had any qualms, the end result proves that they overcame them big time.
Making her directorial debut at Lyric after several previous choreography gigs, Bertone adds another feather to the burgeoning plumage of her colorful cap (The Wild Party, Barnum, Carousel). She overcomes the challenge of fitting the show into the parameters of the small thrust stage, making good use of the ramps, stairways, and loft platform above the main floor for dramatic entrances and select scenes. While scenic designer Janie E. Howland's decorative proscenium arch and giant folding fans loom in the background as constant reminders of the world where it all happens, effective set pieces, blocking, and lighting (Franklin Meissner, Jr.) suggest a plethora of locations, all smartly announced by video theater cards projected on the wall stage left. Costume designer Rafael Jaen provides an array of character-defining threads, with those for the strippers being especially delightful, and Andrew Duncan Will's sound design ensures that all vocals come through loud and clear, perfectly blended with the lively accompaniment of Music Director Dan Rodriguez's 7-piece orchestra sequestered above the set.
One can only imagine what takes place at rehearsals, but Bertone must practice some kind of magic to conjure up the chemistry among the members of the company. The children who play Baby June (Margot Anderson-Song) and Young Louise (Cate Galante) are naturals who capture all of the sugary, showing-off talent of the former and the clumsy, why-do-I-have-to-do-this reluctance of the latter. When their adult counterparts take over the roles, Kira Troilo (June) and Kirsten Salpini (Louise) temper their mannerisms to match the actions of their younger selves. Two other children (Jessica Quaranto, Ben Choi-Harris) featured as part of Baby June's Newsboys are also delightfully natural, the antithesis of the by-products of a pushy stage mother. In the scenes with Mama Rose's troupe of her daughters and the boys she picked up along the way - Tulsa (Brady Miller) and Yonkers (David Alea) - their camaraderie is akin to a quartet of mismatched siblings, a mix of teasing, squabbling, and affection.
Mama Rose is one of the great flawed characters of the musical theater canon, and Barrett's complex, layered portrayal of her is flawless. Never mind those giants who have each put their imprint on the role before her, Barrett becomes Rose the moment she wordlessly takes the stage during the overture. With the music swelling around them, she shepherds her children into the limelight and looks around the theater, taking it all in with every fiber of her being, letting us know that this is home, the only place she wants to be. And we believe it because Barrett doesn't have to compete with a larger-than-life stage persona like Merman's or Lupone's before she can inhabit the character. She brings out the needy, pushy, overbearing aspects of Rose, as well as her occasional displays of caring and affection, but Barrett's own human qualities provide the nuance and underpinning to rein in Rose's monster.
In addition to the breadth and depth of her scene acting, Barrett gives a master class in acting the songs that help to convey who Rose is and what she's all about. The selections that the Styne-Sondheim team wrote for Rose are among the best in the score and Barrett lets it rip on "Some People," "Everything's Coming up Roses," and the defiant, heartbreaking eleven o'clock number, "Rose's Turn." She dials it back just a little to share a couple of tunes with Louise and Herbie ("Small World," "You'll Never Get Away From Me," "Together, Wherever We Go"), but most of the time her vocals are part of her personal power. She may not be the title character, but this is Barrett's show.
As for the title character, Salpini is likable and sympathetic as the daughter who would prefer some of her mother's attention to that of the masses, but could be a little stronger in her transformation from shrinking violet to the independent star she becomes. She nails her vocals in the poignant "Little Lamb" and, with Troilo, in "If Momma Was Married." Even as Miller wows us with his graceful tap sequence ("All I Need is the Girl), Salpini draws our attention as she swoons in the background. She has a nice connection with Herbie (Steven Barkhimer) who does his best to try to provide Louise an island of refuge from Hurricane Rose. Barkhimer nicely underplays the long-suffering Herbie and surprises with a very pleasant singing voice (who knew?), extending the boundaries of the range he has always shown on Boston stages.
Bertone gets great performances from the trio of strippers who show Louise the ropes ("You Gotta Get a Gimmick") in one of Gypsy's funniest musical numbers. Shannon Lee Jones (Tessie Tura) floats like a butterfly, Jordan Clark (Electra) lights up the stage, and Kathy St. George (Mazeppa) blasts her horn and draws gales of laughter (she's also spot on as Cratchitt, a theater owner's secretary/gatekeeper). Strong supporting work in a variety of roles is provided by Remo Airaldi, David Alea, Todd Yard, Anna Chensny, and Davron S. Monroe.
One test of a show's greatness is its ability to stand the test of time. William Shakespeare's plays may provide the gold standard, written as they were in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. By that measure, Gypsy is still in its infancy. However, it is an excellent representative from the Golden Age of Broadway that is considered one of the masterpieces of musical theater. It is set in the 1920s and 1930s, but the story it tells about Rose's distorted dreams and the destructive relationships she forms is a human story that resonates across time. The Lyric Stage Company production of Gypsy evokes its past while giving it purchase in the present. This is one that will be remembered well into the future.
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Leigh Barrett)