BWW Review: GYPSY at Bay Area Musicals Gives Us a Welcome Chance to Revisit This All-Time Classic
"Gypsy" is undeniably one of the all-time great achievements of the American musical theater. It possesses a thrilling combination of showbiz razzmatazz and dramatic intensity, grounded in Arthur Laurents' complex book and wrapped in an incomparably tuneful and stirring score by Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim. For anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of seeing "Gypsy," here's the basic rundown. This "musical fable" is pretty much the ultimate backstage musical, set in the 1920's/30's against the backdrop of the dying vaudeville circuit and based on the true tale of the ultimate stage mother and her two daughters. Momma Rose, dissatisfied with the lousy cards life has dealt her, pushes her two young daughters to careers in show business as a way of fulfilling her own dreams. In real life, one eventually became successful actress June Havoc, and the other perhaps the most famous American stripper of all time, Gypsy Rose Lee. The show is replete with kiddie acts, charm songs, comic numbers and roof-raising anthems, all performed with a dual edge of gusto and desperation.
Seeing it again for the first time in over a decade, I was also reminded of what a tough nut it is to crack. Among other things, you need two leading ladies who can deliver goose-bump-inducing vocals while playing the complicated subtext beneath the lyrics, a large supporting cast of triple-threat performers, and the financial means and artistry to create a variety of stage settings that comment on tawdriness without just appearing tacky. That is indeed a tall order, and Bay Area Musicals production currently running at the Alcazar Theatre meets several of these challenges.
Strong points include two talented leading ladies and three deliciously trashy strippers who inject some extra pizzazz into the show late in the second act. Jade Shojaee as butterfly-in-the-making Louise is a bit indistinct in the first act. Playing a tomboyish wallflower is not Shojaee's strong suit, but her transformation into a world-class stripper in the second act is much more successful, both believable and ultimately thrilling. And her final moments with Rose are very well-played, as we can see the independent woman Louise has become as well as the combustible mix of anger and love she will always harbor for her mother.
Of course, any production of "Gypsy" is only as good as its Momma Rose. Ariela Morgenstern brings a lot to the role, including a robust singing voice with power to spare, stage chops that allow her to run the gamut from charming to downright appalling, and a delicious sexuality that show how she's been able to reel in the various men in her life. Just watching her turn the seemingly innocent ballad "Small World" into an act of seduction by the way she alluringly curves an ankle is a mini master class in musical theater acting. And while Rose is hardly a heavy dance role, Morgenstern moves with flair and grace in her moments of choreography. Her "Rose's Turn," that mother of all 11 o'clock numbers, is galvanic and surprising and in-the-moment. While the keys of her songs do not always seem well-suited to Morgenstern's vocal range, occasioning her to shift into head voice at some infelicitous moments, she has that stage pro's innate understanding of how to build and land a number.
And those inimitable strippers - Elaine Jennings as Tessie Tura, Glenna Murillo as Electra and Olivia Cabera as Mazeppa - provide delightful late-inning relief that knocks the show into high gear with their rendition of "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Yes, this outrageously comic number is always a no-fail proposition regardless of how well it's performed, but these three women all bring a dash of something extra to their roles and seem to be having a blast. It is intoxicating seeing three strong women, none of them in the standard ingenue mold, exulting in their power and individuality as performers.
Where this production sometimes falls short is in the inconsistent design elements. This is the first time I've seen a fully staged musical in the Alcazar Theatre and I was struck by what an awkward space it is. The extremely wide, relatively shallow stage makes it a challenge to focus the audience's attention so some key comic and dramatic moments thus fail to register properly. Director & choreographer Matthew McCoy hasn't sufficiently taken the problematic sightlines into account with his staging of the show. Even from my perfectly good orchestra seat, there were too many critical dramatic moments where none of the actors' faces was visible to me, thus robbing the performances of their ability to register emotionally. McCoy's scenic and lighting designs (he is one busy guy on this production!) also have their highs and lows. It works well to have the orchestra placed upstage in front of a white brick wall which both provides a perfect visual motif for this backstage musical and also lights beautifully in an array of colors. That same white-brick design, however, isn't nearly as successful when repeated on some downstage scenic elements where it feels under-scaled for the vast expanse of the playing area, and thus looks a little cheap. There are some terrific, historically appropriate design details like the faded floral wallpaper for the strippers' dressing room and the clamshell footlights that line the stage, even if they struggle to register visually amidst the overall stage picture.
Even taking these quibbles into account, though, this is a "Gypsy" well worth seeing, and local audiences should be grateful to Bay Area Musicals for giving us the opportunity to experience this fabled piece of musical theater.
(Photos by Ben Krantz Studio)
Bay Area Musicals' production of "Gypsy" runs through Sunday, December 8th at the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary St., San Francisco, CA. For tickets and additional information, please visit www.bamsf.org/gypsy.