BWW Review: GYPSY at Contemporary Theater Company

BWW Review: GYPSY at Contemporary Theater Company

There are few musicals with as prominent a place in the American theatrical canon as "Gypsy"*. It's a big musical, meant for a proscenium stage, and while the Contemporary has mounted a creditable production, their attempt to fit it into a smaller theatre has not been entirely successful.

With its estimable pedigree -- book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim -- the show has had multiple revivals since its debut 60 years ago. At its heart, it's a self-reflexive look at the fragile dreams of show business, with the archetype stage mother, Rose (Eden Casteel) pushing her daughters June (Ari Kassabian) and Louise (Maggie Papa) toward "stardom" in the failing vaudeville circuit of the 1930s.

Despite the best efforts of Rose and their manager, Herbie (Robert Solomon), the girls and their chorus companions run through a string of small-time engagements, leading June and the lead dancer Tulsa (Carter Santos) to elope and form their own act. At a rock-bottom appearance at a burlesque house, Louise is taken under the wing of three salty veterans, Tessie (Valerie Tarantino), Electra (Alijah Ileana Dickenson) and Mazeppa (Guilted Lily) and, coaxed by June to give it one more try, blossoms into a star -- as a stripper.

As anyone who has seen the show knows, there are large production numbers throughout. The set design team of Rebecca Magnotta, Miranda Forman, Emily Barkin, and Andrew Hershfield have displayed extraordinary creativity, crafting a quarter-round multi-level stage built out from the corner of the black-box theater. But the playing area is simply too small, and the blocking and choreography suffer. Too often, the audience is looking at the backs of characters as they address someone upstage. The choreography itself lacks precision and originality.

There are some fine moments. Casteel captures the manic drive of Rose well, and brings a sure, accomplished vocal style to the well-known score. Papa does a wonderful job with Louise's arc from naive child to worldly wise performer, and her duet with Kassabian ("If Momma Was Married") is a standout. Solomon is likable as Herbie. Susie Chakmakian absolutely nails the small but critical role of Agnes with fabulous comedic timing. The strippers (Tarantino, Dickenson, Guilted Lily) are beautifully costumed, with their star turn ("You Gotta Get A Gimmick") well executed. And Terry Simpson's befuddled charm in the comic shtick number, "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" is spot-on.

Chis Simpson is a gifted dramatic director. The scenes between Rose and Herbie show a deft touch; the relationship between June and Louise is rich and authentic. But a big musical like this is just not in the Contemporary's wheelhouse. They've been tremendously successful with smaller, niche shows, including outstanding productions of "Assassins," "Sweeney Todd," and "Little Shop of Horrors." Staging the classic musical numbers of this show within such a compressed space doesn't provide the splash or breathing room they need to be effective.

And despite Simpson's cleverness and skill, there are some puzzling choices. The burlesque catch-phrase, "Meet me round the corner in a half hour" is delivered as a whispered aside. And no matter how multi-talented Casteel is, there is just no possible justification for having her sit at the piano, facing upstage, during part of "Rose's Turn." We don't need to see the silhouettes of those who have abandoned her on a curtain, we need her to convey those losses through performance. And while Simpson sensibly cuts most of the Overture, beginning the Entr'acte while the audience is still milling in the lobby shows insufficient respect for the conventions of musical theatre.

For someone less familiar with the show, these may perhaps be less noticeable, but they illustrate the challenges of tackling a large-scale musical. It is testament to the material that it retains its power even at smaller scale, and the sprinkled gems of acting and vocal performance make this a still worthwhile evening.

"Gypsy" at the Contemporary Theater Company, directed by Christopher Simpson, April 26-27, May 2-4, 9-11 at 7 pm and May 5 at 2 pm. Tickets: Adult - $25, 25 & Under - $15, Previews and Thursdays are Pay-What-You-Can ($18 in advance), Sunday Senior Day: Seniors - $18, available at the box office: 327 Main Street, Wakefield, RI 02879 401-218-0282,,

*The "G" word is recognized as an ethnic slur describing Romani people, and is used in this article only because it is necessary to describe the show being reviewed.

Photo credit: Seth Jacobson Photography

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From This Author John McDaid

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