Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater has just opened their new production of Gypsy, the classic 1959 musical. Often listed among the greatest musicals ever written, Gypsy is dark, complex, and ambitious musical that can challenge even the best of theaters. Does everything come up roses for Washington County Playhouse?
Gypsy is the story of Rose Thompson Hovick, a woman whose insatiable thirst for show business success made her the ultimate stage mother. She struggles for years to turn her two daughters into vaudeville stars in the 1920s and 1930s, even as the vaudeville era is winding to a close. And while Rose does manage to see her daughters become famous performers (actress June Havoc and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), these victories are ultimately unsatisfying. Rose’s monstrous behavior drives away everyone she loves.
Broadway legend Ethel Merman originated the role of Rose, a rich character frequently referred to as the King Lear of musical theater. Over the years, many famous Broadway divas have taken on this demanding part. The list includes Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Linda Lavin, Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone and, most recently, Imelda Staunton. (Rosalind Russell appeared in the filmed version and Bette Midler appeared in a television version).
Gypsy features a terrific score, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by a young post-West Side Story Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, and it’s a serious work, far removed from the light entertainment that characterized most musical theater of the fifties. There’s an honest emphasis on real life’s problems and disappointments, including family tensions and larger societal issues, like the great depression. Gypsy was a bold leap forward for the art form. (Sondheim would continue on this path of darker, more complex subject matter in the musicals he wrote in the subsequent decades, like Sweeney Todd.)
The Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater’s production of Gypsy is a traditional take on the material, but well-executed. Karen Heyser-Paone plays Rose with Merman-esque brio, and ably hits her character’s high notes. Memorable songs included “Some People” and both of Rose’s act closers, “Ev’ry Thing’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn.” Steve Steele plays Rose’s better half, Herbie. His acting and singing are first-rate.
The true highlight of the cast is Shannen Banzhoff as Louise. She sings and dances with exceptional skill, and perfectly captures the girl’s nerdy charm, and later, her fiery determination. Her rendition of “Little Lamb” is sweetly sublime.
With her strong voice and personality, Kaitlyn Marie Lamkin (June) evokes a young Kristin Chenoweth. Her duet with Banzhoff, “If Momma Was Married” was pure fun. Rennes Carbaugh masterfully plays the young dancer, Tulsa. His solo number “All I Need is The Girl” showed off his strong singing and dancing abilities.
Among the supporting players, Jeffrey Clise performed a variety of minor roles, and stole every scene he was in. Lee Merriman was also fun, skillfully playing various businessmen being bulldozed by the unstoppable Rose. All the newsboy actors are gifted performers and their dance scenes had great panache.
Anne Hunt provided welcomed comic relief in the second act as Agnes. “You Gotta Get A Gimmick,” always a highlight of any Gypsy production was performed with enormous verve by Chelsea Bondarenko, Stephanie Allee, and Britany Poindexter. And all of the child performers sang and danced with high spirit and charm.
Director Shawn Martin, helped by talented choreographer Alyssa Little, keeps the energy high and the scenes nicely paced. Scenic design by Jim and Sue Eckel was simple but effective. Lighting by Steven Knapp included a clever window effect for Louise’s “Little Lamb” number and a captivating strobe light sequence to depict the passage of time during a dance sequence. Barbie Gross’ costume design ably captured the thirties period.
Washington County Playhouse’s Gypsy is tremendous fun. It’s a splendid show to spend a night (and dinner) with your family and friends. Let them entertain you!
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Gypsy plays through November 5, 2016 at Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater – 44 North Potomac Street (Rear), in Hagerstown, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 739-7469, or purchase them online.