‘Gypsy’ at Signature Theatre by Derek Mong

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Everything’s coming up sunshine and Santa Claus at Signature Theatre. Hands down-—Signature Theatre’s Gypsy is the best musical I have seen this year. Signature Theatre pulls out all the stops for Gypsy, and the resulting spectacle is nothing short of spectacular! This Gypsy is swell and it’s great! Its a holiday treat you won’t want to miss!

Vaudeville dreams catch on as Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen) gives a pep talk to Baby June (Erin Cearlock) in 'Gypsy. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Vaudeville dreams catch on as Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen) gives a pep talk to Baby June (Erin Cearlock) in ‘Gypsy. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Under the brilliant direction of Joe Calarco (Signature’s Romeo and Juliet, God of Carnage, Urinetown), Signature Theatre’s production of Gypsy is simply everything right about musical theatre. With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy recounts the rise of the famed performer Gypsy Rose Lee, based on the true 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee herself. The storyline focuses on trials and tribulations of show business as Momma Rose (the incredible Sherri L. Edelen)—an over-the-top stage mother—pushes her daughters to the brink of stardom as she nearly destroys everything else meaningful in her life in the process.

Originally produced by David Merrick & Leland Hayward on Broadway in 1959, then revived four times on Broadway in 1974, 1989, 2003, and 2008, Gypsy is widely referred to as “what may be the greatest of all American musicals.” Signature Theatre’s adaption of Gypsy reminds us why.

Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen, left) has a dressing room stand-off with Gypsy Rose Lee, aka her daughter Louise (Maria Rizzo). Photo by Teresa Wood.
Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen, left) has a dressing room stand-off with Gypsy Rose Lee, aka her daughter Louise (Maria Rizzo). Photo by Teresa Wood.

I could start by sharing how Signature Theatre’s production of Gypsy had sets (Jim Kronzer) and lighting (Chris Lee) that perfectly exuded the glitz and glamour of the vaudeville circuit rivaling some of the best and versatile scenic designs I have ever seen, or how Ellen Roberts (Baby Louise) and Erin Cearlock (Baby June) perfectly captivate the ups-and-downs of life as a child of show business, or perhaps even how Maria Rizzo (Louise) masterfully transforms from a shy sidekick of her older sister Dainty June (Nicole Mangi) to the masterful striptease artist Gypsy Lee Rose. But, instead, I’ll start with what truly stole the limelight during Saturday night’s performance of Gypsy—and that was the amazing Sherri L. Edelen’s incredible portrayal of the eccentric, melodramatic Momma Rose.

Edelen—who has been seen at Signature’s productions of XanaduHairspraySide by Side by SondheimWalter Cronkite is DeadSweeney ToddLes Misérables (Helen Hayes Award), UrinetownElegies (Helen Hayes nomination), Side Show (Helen Hayes Award), and more—commands the stage from the moment she walks on to the final curtain call. As Momma Rose, Edelen has the unique ability and responsibility to develop one the most complex characters in the American stage musical. Edelen captures the nuances of the role by carrying the audience through each phase of her character’s development—which intentionally leaves the audience a bit conflicted: Edelen makes us feel hope for the future, disdain at her willingness to sell out her daughters, remorse at her failed marriages, and at times even giddy at the absurdity of her ways, and handles the multidimensionality of the character with ease and grace.

Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen) finds a new agent in Herbie (Mitchell Hébert).  Photo by Teresa Wood.
Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen) finds a new agent in Herbie (Mitchell Hébert). Photo by Teresa Wood.

That’s not to mention Edelen’s glorious voice. Edelen carries the show with hits including “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone”, and the dazzling Act I finale “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Dare I say, Edelen channels the likes of the legends like Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, and Tony Award winners Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, and Patti LuPone while injecting her own unique inflections and flare into these time-tried classics. Her take is fierce, refined, refreshing, and vocally top-notch.

Other standout performers include Mitchell Hébert (Signature’s Art) as Rose’s love interest Herbie, Maria Rizzo (Signature’s Spin, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Xanadu) as the emerging Gypsy Rose Lee, Nicole Mangi (who was in the Broadway revival of Gypsy with Patti LuPone) as Dainty June, and Vincent Kempski (Signature’s Miss Saigon, Spin, Crossing in concert) as the love-stricken Tulsa.

Hébert carefully walks the line between agent and husband-to-be, who himself wields a great deal of internal conflict. His tact in cautiously wooing Momma Rose in songs like “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” while always hedging an exit strategy, is believable. His on-stage chemistry with Edelen makes the relationship convincing and their tribulations all the more real.

Dainty June (Nicole Mangi) and Louise (Maria Rizzo) sing “If Momma Was Married.”  Photo by Teresa Wood.
Dainty June (Nicole Mangi) and Louise (Maria Rizzo) sing “If Momma Was Married.” Photo by Teresa Wood.

Maria Rizzo’s portrayal of the younger Louise and the emergent Gypsy Rose Lee is astounding. What’s phenomenal about Rizzo is the range of characters she can play. She starts the show in a metaphorical cocoon, smothered by her mother and overshadowed by her sister June. At times, her body language and understated demeanor makes you forget she’s even there, but the innocence in her voice in songs like “Little Lamb” reminds you of her star potential, which is unveiled in Act II. Transforming into the newly-born burlesque star, Rizzo handles the evolution of Gypsy Rose Lee with star quality—blending a particular fragility and awkwardness with the eventual tact and prominence of a true icon. Having seen Rizzo portray Sally Bowles in The Keegan Theatre’s production of Cabaret last year, it’s no surprise to me that Rizzo can carry a show in her own right.

Nicole Mangi plays the older and more talented Dainty June, and the time she spent on Broadway in the revival of Gypsy certain shows. She manages to articulate the struggle of an emerging star and the reluctance to continue performing despite the promise of emerging success. Her collapse under the pressure of her mother is believable, and her portrayal of the tired vaudeville act in her mother’s later years is at once absurd and amiable.

Vincent Kempski deserves recognition for his performance of “All I Need Is The Girl,” in which he woos and dances with the then understated Louise. Kempski is truly a triple threat—able to navigate complicated choreography, sing a nuanced and difficult score, and convey a sense of longing all at the same time. He portrays Tulsa in a way that balances a careful sense of hopeful longing, yet also a degree of tragic emptiness with which show business left him.

Under the musical direction of Jon Kalbfleisch, the orchestra, which was situated a top the stage, was also quite the spectacle. With blaring trumpets, heart-pounding drum cadences, and a truly unique, full sound, the five-minute overture at the top of Act I reminds us that there is nothing quite like live music—especially in show business. The sound design by Lane Elms is similarly well balanced; in a show with such iconic Broadway show tunes, Elms ensures that the audience is able to enjoy a blended experience between melodies, harmonies, and orchestral embellishments.

The choreography (Karma Camp) and costume design (Frank Labovitz) are integrated exceptionally well, particularly in the striptease scenes. With vaudeville and burlesque at the centerpiece of the show, the movements are such an integral part of Gypsy that Camp manages to capture through her precise choreography. The movement and body language manage to tell the story itself, particularly for Louise whose awkwardness and jerky movements eventually evolve into the masterful navigation of the burlesque stage through seductive and scintillating dances.

Louise (Maria Rizzo) gets a surprise birthday present from her stage pals Yonkers, Angie, and L.A. (from left: Samuel Edgerly, Joseph Tudor, and Gannon O’Brien). Photo by Teresa Wood.
Louise (Maria Rizzo) gets a surprise birthday present from her stage pals Yonkers, Angie, and L.A. (from left: Samuel Edgerly, Joseph Tudor, and Gannon O’Brien). Photo by Teresa Wood.

The costume design by Frank Labovitz was authentic to the era throughout the evening and was highlighted in a comic number entitled “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” in which burlesque dancers strive to teach Louise a thing or two about strip teasing. With Donna Migliaccio (Mazzepa), Sandy Bainum (Tessie Tura), and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Electra) each demonstrating how their burlesque outfits and associated gimmicks reeled the men in, Labovitz illustrated how details in each costume can really steal the show. Olivera’s costume, in particular, was a scene-stealer; exposing her bare belly and covered with Ping-Pong ball shaped light-bulbs that illuminated in sync with the choreography, the costume was well-constructed and quite the sight to see.

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Gypsy is often heralded as the “Great American Musical,” and this award-winning musical favorite shines and dazzles at the Signature Theatre.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Gypsy plays through January 26, 2014 at Signature Theatre — 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.