GYPSY: A MUSICAL FABLE
You know the motto: “The show must go on.” What better time to test it out than opening night of a musical about show biz?
Barbara Barsky, playing the central role of obsessive stage mother Mama Rose, suffered a severe allergic reaction just 24 hours before the opening of Gypsy. Her throat closed, she couldn’t sing, Arts Club staff were in panic mode. But veteran Barsky sucked it up, got some steroid injections, and wowed the full house at the Stanley with her big belting voice in the show’s iconic numbers like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
Not all is roses in Bill Millerd’s production of the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents classic. The material shows its age and, maybe thrown off a little by the medical crisis, the opening night performance felt ragged. But in fits and starts it’s an immensely entertaining show.
Based on the autobiography of burlesque diva Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy tells of Mama’s compulsive determination to make daughter June a star as she drags cutey June (Melissa Young), plain sister Louise (Lauren Bowler), and a chorus of overgrown kids around the Depression vaudeville circuit with a series of identically tacky routines, most including a dancing cow.
Eventually, June rebels and ugly duckling Louise ironically becomes the star Rose dreamed of creating, but in a different medium and without Rose’s sharing the glory.
There’s great fun along the way—in the kids’ acts (Jianna Ballard as Baby June is particularly delightful), in a sensational dance solo by Scott Augustine, and in the strippers, resplendent in Alison Green’s outrageous costumes, in whose path Louise finally follows. Their number, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” led by Carolyn Bergstrand’s hilarious Betty Boopish Tessie, proves the show-stopper.
Bruce Kellett’s six-piece band manages to sound bigger, even with only three horns and no strings.
Bowler and Young have lovely voices, and Barsky’s solos can bring down the house. But the chemistry among them and Rose’s frustrated love interest, Herbie (Andrew Wheeler), seemed missing on opening night. This was clearest in what should be one of the snappiest numbers, “Together, Wherever We Go.”
We spend so much time with the really unlikable character of Mama Rose that she has to become somehow a sympathetic monster to sustain our interest. But when Barsky isn’t singing, her Rose isn’t quite ferocious enough to pull that off. And Herbie is never much more than a cipher, though he does give Barsky the excuse to sing the lovely ballad “Small World.”
With a long run to work out the kinks, this Gypsy should be able to live up to the promise of its bump-and-grind anthem, “Let Me Entertain You,” and guarantee us a real good time.