BWW Review: Riverside Theatre Reminds Why GYPSY is the Perfect Musical

BWW Review: Riverside Theatre Reminds Why GYPSY is the Perfect Musical

Since its debut on Broadway in 1959, GYPSY has been hailed as one of the most perfect examples of the musical theatre artform. From the lush score of Jule Styne to the inventive lyrics of a young Stephen Sondheim to the funny- and ultimately heartbreaking- book by Arthur Laurents, it is hard to find a flaw in this show.

However, as years pass and the genre evolves, it becomes easy to cynically think of the classics as dated period pieces to be looked at respectfully, but only with a sense of retrospect. However, the production of this musical fable playing at the Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach through March 25th reminds you from the opening moments of the power and poignancy, excitement and insight that the American musical theatre standard-bearers still possess.

BWW Review: Riverside Theatre Reminds Why GYPSY is the Perfect Musical
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan
Photo Credit: Holly Porch

Directed and choreographed by James Brennan, this iconic story of a Seattle stage-mother is inspired by real-life events. However, in reality, Rose Thompson Hovick was far worse than what Laurents and company portrayed in the character of Madame Rose. However, the fictionalized mother's selfish attempts to push her children into a life of show business, no matter the costs, still serve as a cautionary tale; not only to parents, but to anyone whose ambition trumps compassion and empathy.

Flanked by a cast of talented kids (especially Olivia Fanders and Quinn Wood as Babies June and Louise), Jacquelyn Piro Donovan portrays a kinder and gentler Rose in Riverside's production. While her version of the iconic character is full of all of the requisite huckster charms, she never seems to completely embody the intimidating force-of-nature that explains how Rose always seems to get her way.

Her attempts to jumpstart her daughters' vaudeville careers have more of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show" feel than the delusional and destructive undertones that usually round Rose out. That leads to a character that is more likeable than she needs to be to make the drama land as powerfully as possible as the show progresses. However, Donovan is an incredibly charming performer, and it is hard not to root for her- even if you probably shouldn't.

That being typed, this is not as much of a detriment to the show as you might think. Instead, Donovan adds a newfound perspective to this well-worn character. While it might slightly lessen the impact of devastating "Everything's Coming up Roses," it more than enhances the exuberance found in "Mr. Goldstone" and "Together, Wherever We Go."

BWW Review: Riverside Theatre Reminds Why GYPSY is the Perfect Musical
Austen Danielle Bohmer
Photo Credit: Holly Porch

As a result, Austen Danielle Bohmer emerges as the center of the show earlier than Louise normally does. The wonderfully awkward characterization as the family's second (or third) banana is amplified by the fact that her mother seems to inspire more excitement than fear in others. Because of this, Louise is even more sympathetic, because, frankly, she is even more pathetic; cowering at her less-than-abrasive mother.

The refreshingly talented Bohmer makes the most of this, displaying a startling range of emotional availability, highlighted by a touching and poignant rendition of "Little Lamb." Her voice, from a teen of indeterminate years to the biggest star in the burlesque world is fantastic, always highlighting little pockets of emotion that otherwise could be easily glossed over.

As the younger, "more talented" sister, June, Charity Van Tassel is a fun mix of vim and cynicism. When the sisters see June's first real chance at stardom stolen by their mother's pride and arrogance, their duet of "If Momma was Married" offers a glimpse of a real relationship devoid of envy and rivalry; it truly feels like sisters who have long suffered their mother's fits together.

BWW Review: Riverside Theatre Reminds Why GYPSY is the Perfect Musical
Charity Van Tassel and Austen Danielle Bohmer
Photo Credit: Holly Porch

While the lyrics are fun and sarcastic, the song provides one of the most touching moments in the show, full of humor, sisterly sentimentality, and pitch-perfect harmonies. Tassel embodies all of these with a multi-faceted voice, showing different tinges when she is "Dainty" and when she is just June.

For real life reference, the show's Dainty June grew up to be legendary actress and Tony-nominated director, June Havoc.

At Rose's side is the act's agent Herbie, played by Bob Walton. The role is always thankless, but Walton imbues him with a sturdy confidence that rounds out this otherwise flat foil.

One of the unquestioned highlights of Riverside's production is the dual performances of Susan Cella; first as secretary Miss Cratchitt, and then as veteran stripper Dressy Tessie Tura. Again, highlighting the humor and brilliance of this often foreboding show, Cella- an unbridled delight- steals every scene she's in.

BWW Review: Riverside Theatre Reminds Why GYPSY is the Perfect Musical
Mary Callanan and Susan Cella
Photo Credit: Holly Porch

In fact, the entire "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" crew was phenomenal, including Mary Callanan as Miss Mazeppa: Revolution in Dance and Pam Bradley as the luminous Miss Electra.

Brennan and scenic designer Cliff Simon also deserve credit for their fun and creative staging. While I am always partial to the oddly exhilarating strobe transition that allows the kiddie act to age to a not-so-kiddie act, all of the scene changes and passings of time intelligently embraced the theatricality of the show and its settings.

Finally, you can't discuss a production of GYPSY without breaking down one of the most complex songs in the musical theatre cannon. While Donovan's Rose might not be the most intimidating on record, and her voice might not have the raw power and intensity to make the character larger than life, her rendition of "Rose's Turn" (see the banner image at the top of the page) was still breathtaking and brought full-body chills.

The emotional breakdown in which Rose finally vocalizes all of the insecurities that led her to push away every person that ever cared for her is perhaps the musical theatre equivalent of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech; full of nuance, introspection, and revelations, and Donovan delivers all in spades.

Though GYPSY might not have the cache of a DEAR EVAN HANSEN, or the panache of a HAMILTON, seeing Riverside's remarkable production reminds you that there are always new layers to peel back on this already perfect masterpieces.

To purchase tickets to GYPSY, visit Riverside's website or call (772) 231-6990.

What did you think of Rose's turn at Riverside? Let me know on Twitter @BWWMatt. You can listen to me on BroadwayRadio or on BroadwayWorld's pop culture podcast Some Like it Pop.

Banner Image: Jacquelyn Piro Donovan. Photo Credit: Holly Porch

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