‘Gypsy’ at Riverside Center Dinner Theater by Julia L. Exline

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Riverside Center Dinner Theater presents Gypsy, a musical inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous burlesque entertainer. With Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy tells the story of a reluctant star’s rise to fame through the tireless (and some may suggest, obsessive) efforts of one stubborn woman…her mother. Director Patrick A’Hearn and Musical Director Jason J Michael seize this opportunity to delve into the deeper and darker side of this famous mother-daughter dynamic, and the result is both fascinating and entertaining.

David McConnell (Herbie) and Kathy Halenda (Rose). Photo by Peter Chelka/The Free Lance- Star.
David McConnell (Herbie) and Kathy Halenda (Rose). Photo by Peter Chelka/The Free Lance-Star.

As the plot of this story unfolds over a number of years and in many different cities, Scenic Designer Gregg Hillmar mainly uses smaller-scale platforms that are wheeled on and offstage, such like a 1930’s era kitchen and a pair of dingy hotel rooms. An easel standing off the corner of the stage shows the name of the city and the year of when the action onstage is taking place, making the vast plot easy to follow. Lighting Designer Joseph Wallen maintains the iconic and glamorous shadow spotlight that I have grown accustomed to seeing at Riverside, as well as utilizing strobe lighting to enhance a particularly frantic scene. Costumes by Gaye Law are colorful and humorous and her dresses for Baby June and the young Louise perfectly capture the absurdity and obsession of Momma Rose trying to transform her daughters into the next Shirley Temple (complete with the ringlet blonde wigs and dresses that make them look like oversized dolls). As the years progress  these costumes brilliantly change drastically, shrinking as the girls grow until there is little left.

On the set of “Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show,” the stage mom of all stage moms  Rose Hovick (Kathy Halenda) is terrorizing both the crew and the talent, pushing (or shall we say, shoving) her prettier daughter June (Jayne Zirkle as a young June) into the spotlight while overlooking her quieter daughter Louise (Lydia Detar as a  young Louise) who serves as June’s barely-there sidekick. Zirkle and Detar have great chemistry together and are fine singers and dancers. Zirke is peppy and over-the-top and you can’t help but wonder if Baby June’s heart is really in ‘Show Business.’

An unhealthy relationship with both daughters and their mother is immediately apparent, with one being glorified and the other neglected. Rose is determined to give her daughters an adventurous life by giving them star power, proclaiming, “I’ll be damned if I let them sit away their lives like I did,” as she rings emotion out of every meaningful Sondheim lyric in “Some People.”

This passion takes them all over America in lackluster acts, one being the patriotic “Baby June and the Newsboys,” with June frolicking onstage singing a childish song called “Let Me Entertain You.” Energetic choreography by Christopher Noffke harkens back to popular dances of Vaudeville, and seeing them performed so well was refreshing.

As the years drag on, Rose is determined to milk the act for all its worth by making her now almost-grown daughters (Caitlin Shea as an adult June and MaryKate Brouillet as an adult Louise) wear the same foolish costumes and lie about their age.

Rose meets and enlists Herbie Sommers (a charming David McConnell) as their agent, a man who is hopelessly in love with her but whom she refuses to marry. Still, the family is struggling to get noticed. How far will this determined mother go to make her children stars, and when does passion turn into obsession? Through a series of shocking reveals, broken promises, and battered relationships, a star is born…Gypsy Rose Lee. But was it all worth it?

Kathy Halenda is a force of nature as the unstoppable, unwavering Rose, shedding an uncomfortable light on her character with the passionately sung “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and her electrifying tour de force “Roses Turn.”

I loved Caitlin Shea and MaryKate Brouillet’s performances as two sisters whose relationship is threatened by their domineering mother. Their struggle to maintain a sisterly bond despite being treated so differently is very real, and is well -performed, culminated by their humorous, yet heartbreaking duet “If Momma Was Married.” When Louise reprises June’s childhood song “Let Me Entertain You” on a burlesque stage as an adult years later, the song’s lyrics and innuendos have taken on a drastic new meaning. James Schoppe is a charming Tulsa, and shows his ‘hoofing skills’ in “All I Need is the Girl.”

MaryKate Brouillet  (Louise) and James Schoppe (Tulsa). Photo by
MaryKate Brouillet (Louise) and James Schoppe (Tulsa). Photo by Peter Chelka/The Free Lance-Star.

There are several vibrant song-and-dance numbers that are fun to watch, but most of all I appreciated Gypsy more for the story it presented, which I found to be both rich, sad, funny, and fascinating.

Director A’Hearn has assembled a fantastic cast, and they sing the heck out of the legendary Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim score. Riverside Center Dinner Theater’s entertaining and moving production reminds you why many theatregoers and critics have crowned Gypsy one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written.

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

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Gypsy plays through March 9, 2014 at Riverside Center Dinner Theater– 95 Riverside Parkway, in Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets and reservations, call (540) 370-4300.