Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A DYNAMIC PRODUCTION OF
Theater Works and director Robert Kelly are presenting a better than average offering of the Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy. The cast is superb, right down to the youngsters. Sets and lighting are top drawer and direction is fast and crisp. I have never seen a better regional production of this legendary musical. It is new, clean, and fresh, thanks to the way Theatre Works presents it.
I have seen a lot of actresses portray Mama Rose over the years, beginning with the great Ethel Merman at the Broadway Theatre in 1959. As Walter Kerr said at that time, "the best damn musical I have seen in years," and I agreed. The Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim score was magical and unrestrained. It played 702 performances at the time. Playwright Arthur Laurents had presented a musical dramatization that seduced the audience that night. Following that great night I saw Ms. Merman again when she toured in the musical here on the West Coast, and she had not lost any of her spark or brashness.
Following Merman, I saw Rosalind Russell rehearsing, singing and dancing on the sets at Warner's. I became involved in the film when one of the assistant cameramen fell ill. I saw Angela Lansbury as Rose in London and then Tyne Daly in the New York revival. I have also seen good regional productions with Karen Morrow and Margaret Whiting. So, Mama Rose and I had grown up together. I have also known some film mothers who were exactly like Rose. Many were barred from the actual set or told to stay on the side lines and shut up.
Meg MacKay, one of our best regional musical actresses and a cabaret artist in her own right plays Mama Rose in this new production. She gives a remarkable performance as the obsessive stage mother who forces her own ambitions onto her two daughters. Ms. MacKay plays the role softer then the brassy Ethel Merman. It does make more sense with the psychological bonds between the mother and daughter and it makes a more plausible ending. Meg MacKay's last song, "Rose's Turn," is superb. She is a formidable presence singing the song on the front of the stage. On Sunday, she hit just the right notes and there was nothing holding her back. Even when she received the applause of the audience and she continued to bow in silence it was heart rendering. You felt complete sympathy for Rose, knowing she, herself, would never be a star. Ms. MacKay was overwhelming in the first act finale with "Everything's Coming up Roses." Rather then wallow in her disappointment with June for leaving the troop to be married, she rose to the occasion of her flawlessly phased ambition by fixing her hopes on her remaining child.
The rest of cast is outstanding. Elizabeth Ann Traub, who plays the adult Louise, possesses all the talents necessary for musical theater, as well as the charisma to portray the famous burlesque queen. Her transition from clumsy adolescent to celebrated burlesque queen is remarkable. My only comment about the "Let Me Entertain You" number is that it could be smoother. She did not open up on the song until the last few bars and she belted. I only wish she would belt more. She takes the beautifully phrased song and gives it a splendid full voiced rendition at the end. Her rendition of "Little Lamb" is captivating.
One of the highlights of the production is Gair Morris as Tulsa, dancing and singing "All I Need is a Girl." He brought down the house with his graceful, athletic song and dance number. His dance is so smoothly orchestrated that it looks as if he is flying. Mr. Morris was seen nationally in the role of Billy in the PBS broadcast of Crazy for You.
Kimmy Ross plays Baby June with verve, and she is wonderful in the numbers "If Momma Was Married" and "Let Me Entertain You." Jackson Davis, a regular at Theatre Works, underplays his role as Herbie. Let's face it, it is not a great role since the spotlights are always shining on Mama and her two daughters. He has a nice voice and shines most when he, Mama Rose and Louise sang "Together, Wherever We Go." Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura, played by Murphey Hart, Michelle Starrs and C. Kelly Wright, give their all as the three brusque strippers. Ms. Wright, the understudy for Meg, played Mama Rose just three nights before the Sunday night performance when Ms. MacKay was down with the flu.
The kids are a charming, impressive ensemble of promising youngsters who have great talent and could be accomplished actors and actresses in the future. I'd like to single out Courtney Stokes who played Baby Louise. She has the cutest infectious smile; she's adorable in the bobbed haircut. Also, with a wonderful smile and a dance to match, is Bret Easterling who plays the young Tulsa. That kid not only taps great but is a wonderful acrobat.
The direction by Robert Kelly is flawless and the Bick Goss choreography is bang-up. The sets by Tom Langguth are reminiscent of old vaudeville posters and the incredible "Garden of Eden" set at Minsky's Burlesque Theatre was fun. The costumes by Ardith Ann Gray are lavish.
There is one change in this production that I noticed. At the beginning of the production there is the usual overture. On stage the cast wanders about since the opening scene is backstage at Minsky's Burlesque Theatre, or any stage throughout the USA, for that matter. Props are being wheeled back and forth and everyone is in costume. Mama Rose is also on stage to make sure her vaudeville children will be on Uncle Bob's Kiddy Show. Mama Rose disappears and we next see her coming down the aisle of the auditorium yelling "Sing Out Louise!" It's a nice touch.
My only criticism is the very last scene of the musical. I still think when Mama Rose sings the last bar of "Rose's Turn," takes her many bows and then slowly turns around to walk off stage, that should be the end of the musical. However, since Meg plays it softer, the tacked on ending works. I believe, if memory serves me, Merman just walked off the stage without being reconciled with the daughter. I know that is what Sondheim wanted in the musical.
The production plays until July 16 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $20 to $38. The next production is John Henry Redwood's The Old Settler.