Regional Reviews: Seattle
Depending on your point of view, I am either a marvelous son or a highly sadistic one. You see, a few years ago, when I got my mother front row seats to see Dame Edna at the little Booth Theatre tucked away on Broadway, I also persuaded her to eschew the simple black sweater she thought about wearing and pick a silk jacket that was a riot of fuchsia and blue paisleys. I knew what the outcome was going to be: my mother would get picked on and torn apart by the Australian megastar, the incomparable Dame Edna. But you know, she loved it and is still thanking me for my involvement in one of the highlights of her theatergoing life.
And how could she not? Being used by Dame Edna, the brain child and alter ego of actor/writer/comedian Barry Humphries, in her riotously hysterical and politically incorrect Dame Edna: The Royal Tour should be considered a badge of honor and something to talk about with one's grandchildren when we are withered and rocking in our chairs in the (hopefully) distant future. Dame Edna claims that her shows have healing properties, which is a blessed thing, as by the end of the night we are in convulsions from laughter with our sides split and funnybones hurting. Be warned, however: if the mere idea of audience participation makes you break out in a sweat, you would be well advised to avoid the front rows of whatever stage the grand Dame appears (men needn't worry, however; all slings and arrows of outrageous verbiage are aimed strictly at the fairer sex).
I have seen her twice, once at the intimate Booth theater in New York City, and now at the equally cozy Moore Theatre in Seattle, and both times I was a "Mizzy in the Messie," clinging on for dear life (but at least I was safe from flung gladies as well). The show is essentially the same and 75% of it is driven by audience interactions. The Dame's memory is simply astounding and she balances conversations with ten different people, remembering every detail and cross-referencing them with the speed of the fastest computer. Toss in topical references (her jabs at Mayor Schell and Boeing were especially well received by the Seattle crowd) and songs which range from the unnecessary (only because they take away from her witty repartee) to the sublime (her ode to her son, Kenny, who designs all her outfits and is president of the Yvonne De Carlo appreciation society, was highly appreciated by a large percentage of the audience) and you have a wildly hysterical outing.
To tell you more would be to ruin jokes and moments, since I am sure that all of you possums are going to run out and see the Divine Mrs. E when she comes into town. If not, you are missing one of the funniest shows to ever reach the stage, and have one less thing to reminisce about while rocking in that ever nearing retirement rocking chair.
Dame Edna: The Royal Tour runs at The Moore Theatre through May 13th which just so happens to be Mother's Day. Now what better present can you give Mom than a ticket to Dame Edna? Just tell her to wear something nice. For more information visit www.themoore.com.
Meanwhile, while her swain and defender would be quick to point out that she is a lady, I think we can safely refer to the Medea of Musical Theatre as something of a dame. I am of course referring to the ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose, the central character in one of the best musicals ever written, Gypsy, currently playing at the Fifth Avenue Theatre through May 20th. Like the before mentioned Greek mother-from-hell, Mama Rose sacrifices her children for her passion; recognition. Thankfully in Rose's case the wounds she inflicts on her children are not mortal, at least physically. Inspired by the memoirs of famed burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, the musical makes the two children take a back seat to their mother for a change (ironically, both children would become stars: one becoming June Havoc and the other, of course, the famed stripper).
With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, Gypsy was a hit when it opened on Broadway in 1959 with Ethel Merman at the helm. Subsequent stage productions (in London with Angela Lansbury in 1973, back on Broadway with Tyne Daly in 1989), a movie version with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood and a recent TV movie staring Bette Midler all proved that the old gal continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Gypsy, in fact, is perhaps the only musical that is treated like a classical drama, in that when one talks of a production, it is always prefaced by its star. Well, another star can added to that company in terms of putting her stamp on the classic role, the fabulous Judy Kaye.
Judy Kaye, who wowed Seattle audiences with her star turn as Sally in Follies in 1995, returned with a vengeance offering a shrewd and calculating take on Mama Rose. What sets her Rose apart from previous interpretations is less her impeccable singing (and let's face it; Judy Kaye is possibly the strongest and best-trained singer to ever perform in a major production of this show) than the intelligence she displayed behind the character's drive. Her Rose is less a force of nature than a calculating and highly adaptable woman; picture Madonna as a stage mother. Although troubled by lyric problems for half of the first act, by the time "Everything's Coming Up Roses" closed the act, Judy Kaye had erased any images one previously had of the show, be they audio or visual. Equally adept with the pure musical comedy numbers of the show, such as "You'll Never Get Away From Me," and "Together, Wherever We Go," as with the tour-de-force ultimate breakdown soliloquy, "Rose's Turn," Judy Kaye was simply amazing and nailed every acting moment. Her rendition of "Rose's Turn" was one of the most perfect theatrical moments I have ever had the pleasure to witness, and her primal scream of 'Mama' in the middle of it is still ringing in my head and heart.
Too bad twenty or so theatergoers decided not to stick around to witness that crowning moment in the show. It's bad enough for people to leave during curtain calls, but I swear they are leaving earlier and earlier during the show. And for what? To beat the rush at the coat check? To get their cars five minutes earlier? Well opening night certainly showed us whom the uninformed theatergoers were who seemed to think the show ends with Louise's transformation into the title character, Gypsy Rose Lee. Next time folks, stay home and rent the movie. And let those of us who are willing to treat theater as an event enjoy the show without distractions.
I will now get off my soapbox to further give this production the praise that it deserves. Sloan Just, recently seen on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar, was phenomenal as Louise. Her evolution from overshadowed afterthought to struggling 'most favored daughter' substitute to full-blown star was subtle and organic. Her touching and aching desire for the man she can't have, Tulsa, (well danced, played and sung by Jason Gillman) in "All I Need Now is the Girl" made you want to reach out and slap him for not realizing the catch he had beside him and running off instead with her sister, June. As Dainty June, Jennifer Cody (fresh from playing the 'littlest Who' in Suessical), was close to perfection. While her lower range wasn't quite there for "If Momma Was Married," she more than made up for it with her acting and for being physically perfect for the part. In fact, when the characters grew up from children to near adults in the "Newsboys" number, I thought at first they forgot to change Junes. Jennifer Cody also displayed the spark which made it believable that with proper coaching (and removed from her mother's interference), Dainty June could indeed be quite the actress. Stephen Godwin was wonderful as Herbie, avoiding the pitfalls and stereotypes that are easy to fall into with such a passive character. His Herbie took over both the maternal and paternal duties neglected by Mama Rose, and was believably in love with his marriage-phobic intended. Angie Rolfs was hysterical as the mega-producer's assistant, Miss Cratchitt, and as the high wattage stripper, Electra. In fact, all three strippers, Angie, Anne Allgood (Mazeppa) and Carolyn Magoon (Tessie Tura) were sheer perfection in the comic highlight of the show, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."
Overall, the direction by Mark Waldrop (best known for writing the book and lyrics and directing When Pigs Fly, and recently for directing Pete 'n Keely) was strong and he nailed the musical comedy moments as effectively as the dramatic ones. However, there were three small flaws that failed to make this production of Gypsy a 100% perfect show. "Small World" was a frenetic mass of movement with no moments for calculation. This was in sharp contrast to the rest of the show and failed to allow Rose a chance to decide when and if to steal from her father. In "Little Lamb" he made the horrible mistake of succumbing the cute possibilities of having animals on stage, rather than seeing them for the squirming reality that they are. Sloan Just deserves special notice for not only managing to get through the number without ever breaking character (no mean feat, when you have a squirming creature butting up against your chest as you're singing a ballad), but for winning us all back when the lamb finally settled down. Finally, a few more beats were needed after "Rose's Turn" for Judy Kaye/Rose to establish that the whole number was in her head, and that she was in fact bowing to her imaginary audience instead of those of us cheering her triumphant kick-ass moment. Now these minor flaws should not discourage anybody from seeing this masterful production of a masterpiece. They are only mentioned so I can keep my critic's license renewed.
Gypsy runs at Fifth Avenue Theatre through May 20th. For more information, visit www.5thavenuetheatre.org.
- Jonathan Frank