Since its debut in 1959, Gypsy, which closes out Arden Theatre Company’s 2016-17 season, has retained its popularity as one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time, filled with such classic hits as “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and “Let Me Entertain You.” Based on the 1957 memoir of 1930s stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the “Musical Fable” (as it is subtitled) – with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents – gives an inside perspective on the era in show biz when Vaudeville was on the decline and Burlesque was on the rise; on the blind ambition and psychological make-up of the archetypal stage mother; and on the emotional fallout and familial dysfunction that resulted from Mama Rose’s relentless attempts to live out the stardom she craved for herself vicariously through her daughters June (actress June Havoc) and Louise (the eponymous Gypsy).
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen, the 21-person (and one-canine!) cast features Mary Martello in the iconic role of Mama Rose, with Caroline Dooner as Louise and Rachel Camp as June. Child actors Alexa Hunt as Baby June and Veronica Nardo as Baby Louise set the stage for their development, performing the little sisters’ silly Vaudevillian routines and already clearly displaying their contrasting personalities. Hunt is frothy, blond, and feminine, while smiling and squealing and talking to the audience; Nardo is quiet, unassuming, brunette, and boyish, a neglected background player to Mama’s obvious favorite. Then suddenly, through the theatrical magic of a clever split-second time lapse, Dooner and Camp become teenage versions of the kids, with characterizations still rooted in their younger selves, but soon showing the effects of their unconventional childhood, and their overbearing mother, on the choices they make as they grow into adulthood – most notably, the shy and mild-mannered Louise’s unexpected transformation into burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee.
Lending support to the female leads are Broadway’s Anthony Heald as Herbie – Rose’s latest partner in romance and business, who takes on the role of managing the girls’ act, but ultimately becomes disheartened by their mother’s behavior; the ever-engaging David Bardeen as a series of house managers forced to do battle with the aggressive Rose (the scenes in which Martello excels); three eccentric strippers played with gusto by Joilet F. Harris, Monica Horan, and Meghan Strange, who alert the newbie Gypsy that “You Gotta Have a Gimmick;” and an all-ages ensemble of seasoned professionals and emerging young talents, in keeping with the Arden’s commendable mission of educating, training, and offering on-stage opportunities to the next generation of theater artists.
Musical highlights of the show include “If Mama Was Married,” in which Dooner and Camp bring their powerful voices, emotional expressiveness, and tuneful harmonies to the unhappy sisters’ wishful duet (it made me wish that Camp – who, earlier in her role as Dainty June, performs high kicks, cartwheels, and full splits choreographed by Jenn Rose – could be on stage longer!). Malik Akil as Tulsa, a member of the siblings’ touring backup ensemble, provides another wow, commanding the stage with his spectacular song-and-dance number “All I Need Is the Girl.” Also numbering among the biggest stars of the production are world-class Music Director Ryan Touhey (popping up in a surprise appearance as a conductor at one of the sisters’ early auditions) and his top-notch ten-piece orchestra, who deliver the blockbuster Broadway score with panache, in an evocative three-story configuration that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the traditional orchestra pit. Unfortunately, the cast’s singing wasn’t always equal to the strength of the musicians, which often overpowered their more tentative notes; especially problematic were the uneven vocals, lost low tones, and missed harmonies in the usually exuberant “Together Wherever We Go.”
James Krozner’s set smartly suggests both the storybook frame of “A Musical Fable” and the proscenium stage of a theater, which easily switches from inside to out with the opening and closing of the red stage curtain and the movement of a few pieces of furniture. Adorning the exterior pillars are ornately framed video projections by Jorge Cousineau that identify the changing locales, acts, and venues. Lighting by Thom Weaver is appropriately theatrical, and costumes by Richard St. Clair capture the period and the personalities (with the particularly amusing use of a hotel blanket for Rose and the girls, and June’s stunning white coat with glittering rhinestones and a silver appliqué of the New York skyline).
Arden’s production of Gypsy has already proven itself to be a hit with Philadelphia audiences; due to high ticket sales, a one-week extension of the show was announced prior to its opening. If you want to go, don’t delay, or you might not get in!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.