BWW Reviews: Everything's Coming Up Roses at GYPSY
Ask any musical theater junkie what's the best musical of all time, and any worth their spit will answer with one word: Gypsy. The iconic show is highly regarded to this day with good reason. The score's infectious, the sets and costumes eye-catching, and the characters, particularly that of Mama Rose, are on par with those found in plays by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Gypsy isn't just musical theater. It's a great American Drama, and all that the show can and should be comes to vivid life in The Playhouse's current production.
The musical-with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim-tells the true story of how Louise Hovick (Paige Berry) became the famous burlesque stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. The shy, talentless Louise plays second fiddle to her younger sister, June (Alison Hinojosa). Their mother, Rose (Anna Gangai) is determined to turn June into a child vaudeville star, but plans eventually change, thrusting Louise into the spotlight.
Gypsy's appeal and strength truly stem from the material itself. Laurents, Styne, and Sondheim have meticulously crafted a show that's funny and witty yet still grounded, dramatic, and raw. It also slings acidic barbs at show-biz and motherhood, yet somehow embraces both. There's a delicate balance to such things, and Gypsy manages the balancing act remarkably well.
The same can be said for director Tim Hedgepeth. His production embraces all that Gypsy is and gets it all in effortlessly. The set, designed by Ryan DeRoos, delights in the theatricality of the story. Rose, Louise, and June are all "show people" who are almost always on a stage or in a theater, and DeRoos' set constantly reminds us of the role the theater plays in the story by consistently exposing the back wall of the Russell Hill Rogers Theater. The costumes, designed by Rose Kennedy, beautifully blend the glamor of the glory days of vaudeville with the harsh realities of Depression Era fashions. There's a richness and playfulness to Pat Smith's lighting, Lizel Sandoval's choreography is crisp and electric (in one number, quite literally), and the orchestra, directed by Jane Haas, blows the roof off the theater, particularly in the show's iconic jazzy overture.
The cast is quite possibly the most polished and professional cast ever assembled by The Playhouse. Every member of the ensemble proves they can sell a number and land a joke, especially Corina Zars, Sherry Gibbs Houston, and Nicole Erwin as a trio of bawdy striptease artists. Milla Check plays young Louise as appropriately timid and plain, and Madison Calderon* is so sickeningly sweet and adorable as young June, she'd easily give Shirley Temple a run for her money. It's a cuteness carried on by Alison Hinojosa later in the show, though Hinojosa could do more to play up her character's teenage angst and anger towards her mother.
As Louise, Playhouse veteran Paige Berry gives what may be her best performance to date. She plays teenage Louise with a heartbreaking meekness and naivety, but as Gypsy Rose Lee, she's confident, sexy, and almost dangerous. Her climactic showdown with her mother (which happens to be one of the greatest book scenes in any musical) is just as big a showstopper as any of the numbers in the show.
David Blazer, another staple of the San Antonio theater scene, similarly outdoes himself as Herbie, Louise's talent agent and Rose's love interest. It's always nice to see someone with some musical chops sing a role that wasn't crafted for a singer, and Blazer's acting, especially late in Act II, is spectacular.
But like all productions of Gypsy, the show really belongs to the actress in the role of Rose, and Anna Gangai does not disappoint. She does look slightly intimidated at times, which is somewhat understandable since the role has been played by the likes of Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone. Understandable though Ms. Gangai's trepidations may be, they're completely unfounded. She's more than capable of handling the insane demands of the role. She can belt with the best of them (easily better than Russell, Daly, and even Peters) and has the look and demeanor of a great diva of the stage. It's her acting, though, that truly sets Gangai apart. Rose can come off ruthless, self-serving, and even cruel or negligent, but there's a warmth and tenderness to Gangai's Rose. She plays the character as a woman who's truly trying to do right by her children, and that makes her choices and the losses she experiences along the way all the more heartbreaking. She's still tough, but not as tough as women like Merman or LuPone have played her. The added bit of humanity that Gangai has given Rose gives a bit more weight and believability to the nervous breakdown/emotional rollercoaster that comes in the show's finale, "Rose's Turn." The result of those last four minutes is beyond words.
GYPSY plays The Playhouse at 800 West Ashby Place, San Antonio 78212 now thru March 8th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $12-$30. For tickets and information, please visit www.theplayhousesa.org
*The role of Young June is played by Katie Beth Hall at alternate performances.