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BWW Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre Presents GYPSY

The production runs until February 20th on Arizona Broadway Theatre's Mainstage in Peoria, AZ.

BWW Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre Presents GYPSY

We are once again delighted to welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to the pages of BroadwayWorld ~ as always, featuring his distinctive, well-balanced, and intelligent perspective on theatre. In this case, he shines the light on Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of GYPSY.

Here now ~ From the keyboard of the inimitable David Appleford:

If there's one subject Broadway loves it's a story about itself. So do theater-goers. Tales of showbiz, larger-than-life impresarios, backstage dramas, auditions, and players struggling to put on a show have always been a leading factor in musicals. GYPSY - its full title, GYPSY: A MUSICAL FABLE -incorporates all of these elements.

Running now until February 20th on Arizona Broadway Theatre's Mainstage as part of its 2021-2022 season in Peoria is a new and appropriately brash production of composer Jules Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim's musical fable. It doesn't hit all of its marks, but when it does, which it does often, then ABT's GYPSY, directed by Danny Gorman from the book by Arthur Laurents, truly does clear the decks, lights the lights, and ultimately hits those theatrical heights.

The Gypsy of the title is Rose Louise Havoc, the woman who would go on to become Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque entertainer famous for her striptease act, but the musical revolves around Louise's domineering, self-deluding mother, Rose, the woman who plowed through life with unstoppable, single-minded confidence. As Rose's more talented daughter, June (Katie Scarlett Swaney) says to Louise (Alicia Babin) when discussing what is truly Mamma's singular talent, "She's good at making herself believe anything she makes up."

The ultimate showbiz mother is played by ABT's casting and artistic producer, Cassandra Klaphake. It's the kind of grandstanding role that Klaphake would naturally gravitate towards. Originally written and developed for Ethel Merman who hardly required amplification to be heard in the back row, Klaphake can certainly join the pantheon of players who clears the decks when she sings a belter and lights the marquee lights all around her (courtesy of Aaron Curry's lighting design) as she does during Rose's Turn, the show's muscular climactic moment. "Why did I do it?" she demands to know, referring to how she has spent her life pushing her two girls into showbiz. "Where did it get me?" The power of this sad but angry self-reflection is hammered home even further when, at the end of the song, the audience applause, like those marquee lights, fades, yet Rose continues to bow; she's savoring an imaginary full-house that in reality will never see her perform.

Even though the whole show leads to that solo show-stopping finale - one that curiously was originally intended to be a Jerome Robbins dream ballet but was eventually cut - the real power of Rose's obnoxious indomitability is displayed at the end of the first act. Rose's traveling children's act looks finished, and daughter Louise may finally have a chance to escape a life on the road and go to school, where she should be. But Mamma Rose is having none of that. Instead, she has another idea for a new act, this time with the reluctant Louise front and center. She reveals this with the powerhouse Everything's Coming Up Roses. But while audiences may be centering their attention on Rose and her song, the real drama is occurring behind her. That's where audiences should be looking. A distraught Louise runs into the comforting arms of the act's manager and father-figure, Herb (Jamie Michael Parnell) as they both realize that Rose is never going to let their nightmare end. Klaphake doesn't sing with quite the feverish intensity that should illustrate just how delusional Rose is, yet the reality of what is dramatically occurring remains effectively horrifying. It's also a moment of great theatre.

Supporting cast members are strong, from Alicia Babin's Louise who has the unenviable task of coming across as intentionally talentless then developing professionally before us as she ages; Katie Scarlett Swaney as Baby June who, because of her mother's insistence that her daughter remains no older than ten, effectively reminds us from appearances alone that had she not severed her Mamma's clinging ties, she might have grown from a Baby June into a real-life creepy Baby Jane; to Jamie Michael Parnell's sympathetic, tolerant, and understanding Herbie. Parnell's voice is so full of rich-sounding harmonics, it's as much a pleasure to hear him talk as it is to hear him sing.

There are also good turns from several reliable ABT regulars who double in various roles throughout, notably Tony Blosser and the naturally funny Renee Kathleen Koher, who may go somewhat over-the-top with her caricature of the dutiful secretary Miss Cratchit - the comical walk from stage right to stage left to answer a ringing phone is frankly odd - but she shines as Tessie Tura, one of the three strippers who temporarily steal the show with You Gotta Have A Gimmick. Kiani Nelson as Electra, who garners laughs with her battery-operated costume - the clue is in the name - and Blair Beasley, whose trumpet playing bump and grind gladiator is simply hilarious, complete the trio of ladies. It is that backstage lesson they teach Louise that will eventually transform the young woman into Gypsy Rose Lee.

Carter Conaway's costumes are right on target, as is James May's music direction. What a pleasure it is to hear that theatrical rarity; a good old-fashioned Overture as blaring trumpets backed by a full-sounding orchestra announce the opening of the show.

Interestingly, rather than change the scenery as characters move from one location to another, Nate Bertone's cleverly detailed set reveals an abstract version of a wide backstage arena where a change of setting is indicated not by a set-change but by Mary Rooney's props. It's as if the whole story of a life in the theatre unfolds in a backstage world. Only the scene-setting title cards indicating where the characters are that flank the set at any given moment fail to deliver. Under the subdued light, you simply can't read them.

It's not difficult to fully appreciate why the industry considers the 1959 show to be the greatest of all stage musicals. It's also the last of the great shows written and told in the Rodgers and Hammerstein form of musical theatre storytelling. Once the sixties began and music tastes differed, new musicals began to incorporate a more beat-driven style into the score. In the way that GYPSY laments the end of vaudeville, the show itself was truly the last of its kind. ABT's handsome new production gives us the chance to enjoy that style of musical theatre all over again.

Poster credit to ABT

Arizona Broadway Theatre ~ ~ 7701 W. Paradise Lane, Peoria, AZ ~ 623-776-8400

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