Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Opus
But Mr. Bell needn't be ashamed, because (in this case) size really doesn't matter. And the cuts seem minimal. In fact, when the final bows are in full swing at the very end of his three hour extravaganza, and the audience is on its feet cheering, the sight of so many great characters all jammed together on that smallish palette, and the actors who brought them all to life, is amazing and overwhelming.
When I was a little boy growing up in Los Angeles in the sixties, I remember the mature Gypsy Rose Lee from her local TV talk show. And as I recall, she wore waspish silk Capri pants and big flouncy matching tops, and would gregariously seat her guests on the stage floor on great over-sized throw-pillows for a fast-paced little chat that never made a lick of sense to me.
But flash back, forty years before that, to when her indomitable mother Rose Hovick had plans to make Lee's sister (later the actress June Havoc) into a big Vaudeville star. And Gypsy becomes the fanciful story of how Mama Rose hammered her own head, and everyone else's, into a brick wall till it finally caved in: destroying their old lives in the process, and leaving them to climb out of the wreckage anew, on the other side.
It's all pretty darned fabulous, in spite of a surprisingly wobbly reed section in the usually excellent band, led by Chris Petersen. That aside, I almost can't believe we've been walking around with local singer and actress Deborah Sharn in our collective back-pockets all these years, when she could have been doing this role every year, and making somebody a pretty fair sum of money all along. She humanizes Rose even more than librettist Arthur Laurents ever did, but still has a fierce determination, a magnificent voice for all those famous songs, and a whole galaxy of stage smarts jammed into that head of hers.
And, amazingly, she's surrounded by equally outstanding co-stars. Little Lily McDonald is brash and game as Baby June, and Isabella Koster is subtle and intelligent as Baby Louise, growing up to be the hilarious June (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) and the emotionally starved Louise/Lee (Sabra Sellers), and both of these young women are stunningly effective in every way. Meanwhile, Ken Haller takes the potentially drab role of manager Herbie and fills it with genuine heart and soul. And producer/director Bell is not to be underestimated in any of the collaborative process throughout.
The whole show is a miracle of good construction: Rose's back is against the wall every five minutes, and she claws her way free each time, even when one of the boys (the fine Zach Wachter) runs off with one of the girls, or when everything falls apart and Rose becomes the family evangelist once again, with Everything's Coming Up Roses. Yet somehow, "Together," they persevere.
Don't ask me how, but that stripper number (with three tired women in a seedy "theater" in Wichita) always works, especially with Jennie Ryan as Tessie Tura (though it's here, perhaps, we miss a wider stage the most). Then there's the story's incomparably creepy undertow of corruption that follows, almost wordlessly, as fate delivers Louise to her own version of fame and fortune. Just then, though, there's an unexpectedly hilarious minute or two as the newly-minted Gypsy begins her striptease career: Ms. Sellers is openly, broadly comical, and very nearly slapstick, in struggling with her long gown in front of Gypsy's very first "adult" audience.
I was initially quite shocked by this riotous "Carol Burnett-style" approach. But if you consider everything that Louise has learned watching her slyly satirical sister, and where Louise must ultimately end up in the pantheon of burlesque, this frantically comical introduction to her "art" may be the most interesting new insight into this 1959 classic in decades. Besides, there's still plenty of other morally spooky terrain left to explore elsewhere in the show, if it's schadenfreude you're after.
I suppose I was even more spooked, however, over how Ms. Sharn would handle Rose's giant, surprisingly introspective soliloquy in the final minutes. But she presents it straightforwardly, and with panache. Her Rose may just be the perfect stage mother after all, creating unexpectedly rich circumstances for little June and Louise, and later big June and Louise, to really strut their stuff.
Through April 20, 2013, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., about a mile south of I-44, and three blocks east of Grand Blvd. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org