Gypsy – Theatre Review: Theater Works, Peoria

With the change of summer into fall almost upon us, this weekend saw the opening production from the new MasterWorks Season 2017-18 at Theater Works in Peoria. Gypsy began on the large though surprisingly intimate Theater Works main stage just as it did back in 1959, with the glorious blast of trumpets bouncing off the walls of a packed house from the wonderfully old-fashioned Overture, heralding the arrival of what is often considered to be the greatest of all Broadway musicals.

Though not all of those original ‘59 reviews were positive, the overwhelming love and affection that New York audiences felt for its powerhouse leading lady, Ethel Merman, ensured an honor of historic Broadway importance that even now continues to build. Casting Rosalind Russell over Merman in the 1962 film version has to be among the dumbest decisions ever to have come out of Hollywood.

As for the show’s reputation as being the greatest, that’s something that never came about until 1973. American reviewers who flew overseas to the opening of the London premiere with Angela Lansbury gushed at some of the production changes made from the ‘59 original, including the addition of the lighted catwalk that brings Rose out into the audience, something that never occurred with Merman (but is nicely included in this Theater Works production). The quotes you usually read about the musical’s greatness from those famous New York critics, such as Clive Barnes and Frank Rich, are from what they saw in the London production. Lansbury brought that same production back to tour America, where it finally opened as a revival on Broadway in ‘74, thus finally solidifying that reputation of greatness that is regularly repeated today.

And great it is. But while this new Rusty Ferracane directed production in Peoria had its small share of technical flaws during the opening weekend Sunday matinee performance, the overall impression you’re left with as you leave the theatre is that Theater Works has truly delivered. And more than anything, it’s the cast that makes it so.

It may be fifty-eight years since the show first appeared, but like the magnificent sound of that overture, there’s a timeless quality to Gypsy that can never grow old. If there’s one thing Broadway loves it’s a story about itself, and so do theatre-goers. Tales of showbiz have always been a leading factor in musicals, and Gypsy manages to incorporate almost all of them, particularly because much of what you see is true. Certainly, events witnessed in the telling of Gypsy never happened in quite the way the show presents, but the characters are real, and the events as written in the script from Arthur Laurents represent a reality that came from the 1957 memoir of the real Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque entertainer; the woman who originally put the tease in striptease when her strap accidentally slipped off her shoulder and drove the mostly male audience wild; a move she continued to repeat and perfect as her burlesque theatre reputation grew.

The show may be called Gypsy, but the focus is really on Rose, the brazenly self-deluded mother of all show biz mothers. As played by veteran Kelli James, whose professional background is well documented in the Theater Works playbill, the complex nature of Rose’s monstrous actions are high-lighted in ways that don’t always fully emerge in a typical regional production.

For many past mammas, there tends to be a one-note, in-your-face Merman approach; aim high and keep hitting. While the character has a drive and a delusional determination that will never quit – get out of her way or she’ll run you down – there are lows among the many highs in James’ performance that brings out a surprising sense of empathy for what she’s doing to herself. She is a monster – her children are pushed into a life they don’t always want; there’s no education, and Rose continually lied about their age to keep a mediocre vaudeville act on the road simply because it was the life mamma wanted for herself – but James brings moments to the insufferable character where you actually feel sorry for her, and that’s a considerable achievement. Whether it’s due to James bringing her own interpretation to the table or a case of an actor responding well to Ferracane’s emotive direction and fleshing out exactly what he wanted is difficult to say, but the end result is quite outstanding, and both deserve the applause.

Gypsy may have a large cast, and those actors busily doubling in various roles throughout are all effective (especially the three ladies of You Gotta Get A Gimmick, Tracy Burns, Jacqui Notorio, and hilarious scene-stealer Tina Khalil and her trumpet) but it’s really an intimate musical with three leads and one vital support.

Naturally, the spotlight falls on Rose – the grandstanding nature of the character all but ensures the focus – but there’s also the much put upon father figure to the girls, Herbie (Scott Hyder who should be congratulated for delivering a sympathetic performance that feels natural, making Herbie seem all too real), Louise, the title character Gypsy (Amanda Glenn, with perhaps the most difficult role considering she has to convincingly downplay any sense of real theatrical talent throughout most of the show) and the support of Louise’s sister, June (the perpetually goldilocked Kathlynn Rodin, who by mere appearance convincingly illustrates how, as a young woman, had she had not bolted from her clinging mother’s grasp before intermission, would have eventually grown from Baby June into a frightening Baby Jane). Special mention also to Allie Angus and Olivia La Porte, both highly effective in their brief appearances as the younger versions of June and Louise.

With music by Jules Styne and those superb lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy was always recognized for its outstanding score consisting of numbers that have now become standards, including Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Let Me Entertain You, Together (Wherever We Go) and the emotionally climactic Rose’s Turn, but the standouts are Rose’s opener Some People, which is simply a great theatrical song, and the tuneful lament of Louise and June, If Momma Was Married, sung as a waltz with wonderful harmonies.

There’s power in that final number, Rose’s Turn, when Rose sings to an imagined audience seen only in her crazed mind, seated around the catwalk, and it’s a terrific moment brought to life by James’ passionate portrayal. But the true heart of what Gypsy is really about comes just before the intermission.

After the traveling act has all but grounded, and Louise may finally have a chance to settle and go to school where she should be, Rose selfishly and recklessly conceives of a new idea for an act. She reveals it with a feverish Everything’s Coming Up Roses. While an audience’s attention may center on James’ knockout rendition, the real drama is occurring behind her. As Rose continues to sing, and brings the house down in the process, Louise runs into Herbie’s arms for support. All they can do is look on in shock, realizing that Rose is never going to let their nightmare end. That’s where you should look, behind Rose. The moment is horrifying, but when it’s done well, it’s great theatre, and in this Theater Works production, it’s done really well.

It has to be noted that certain sound and mic issues plagued much of the first half during the Sunday matinee performance, continued into the second, and extended beyond simply cracks, sound drops, or the picking up of rustling of clothing. There was often the imbalance of volume between characters where one character might sound natural while the other in the same scene sounded far too amplified. Technical aspects in a live performance can admittedly be a frustrating issue, and a difficult job for the technician to overcome while a performance is in motion, but noises as distracting as these need to be addressed before another performance, which I’m confidant will be the case.

Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose and Josiah Duka

Gypsy runs at Theater Works in Peoria until September 24

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