Also see Scott's recent review of Song & Dance
Some musicals are so well written and conceived that all a director must do to insure success is to be true to the material and hire talented, hard-working performers. Such is the case with the current production of Gypsy being presented in Cincinnati at Playhouse in the Park.
Gypsy is the story of Momma Rose and her two daughters, the talented June and the less-gifted Louise. The iron-willed stage mother pushes her children toward stardom on the stages of vaudeville and lets nothing in her control stand in their way. As the years go by and success is no closer than when they started, June and the rest of the crew leave Rose for greener pastures. Louise is all that is left to fulfill Rose's dreams of fame. Never giving up, Rose throws her shy daughter to stardom as the burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, but at a cost to all involved.
The show, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, bills itself as "A Musical Fable" and this accurately describes the book of Gypsy. Arthur Laurents melded the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (which she readily admitted were written more to entertain than to be truthful) with some fact and lots of imagination. The end result is a fast paced and funny, yet poignant, story and one of the finest books to a musical ever. The score by Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) is perfectly suited to the material. Broadway gems including "Some People", "Everything's Coming Up Roses", "All I Need Is the Girl", and "If Momma Was Married" make this likewise one of the top scores in theater history.
Gypsy was written with its original star in mind, the bold and brash powerhouse and Broadway legend Ethel Merman, and the quality of every production of the show hinges largely on the choice of actress for the role. Cincinnati's favorite musical theater darling Pamela Myers (a Tony nominee for Sondheim's Company) takes on the challenge with great success. She is vocally impressive, especially on "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn." Ms. Myers excels in bringing the manic and comedic aspects of the character to life and is adequately convincing in the near-breakdown scene during the musical's final moments.
The musical provides chances in the spotlight for many other performers as well. As Louise, Broadway performer Joan Hess is wonderfully effective as both the shy and timid teenager and as the mature star stripper, and she sings and moves with great skill. Hess capably takes the character from the innocence of youth to the realization of her mother's self-serving ways. As Herbie, the patient love of Momma Rose, John Woodson acts the role excellently, but is not up to par with the other cast members in regard to singing ability. Emily Rabon Hall is winning as the grown up and frustrated June, and Hunter Bell does very well in his big number as Tulsa. In their roles as the strippers who show Louise the ropes in "You Gotta Get A Gimmick", Rebecca Spencer (Tessi Tura), Kathleen France (Mazeppa), and Carol Schuberg (Electra) each earn lots of laughs with their outstanding performances. The entire ensemble, including Jacqueline Probst as Baby June and Jamie Anderson as Baby Louise, bring obvious talent and energy to the show, including Baxter the Dog, as Chowsie.
Director Victoria Bussert and Choreographer Janet Watson have smartly borrowed heavily from the original staging by Jerome Robbins. The pace is fluid and the use of showgirls displaying scene location signs during set changes is conceptually interesting. The musical direction by Steven Gross is solid as he leads a nine-piece orchestra. The set design, as provided by John Ezell, is simple, yet effectively evokes the declining age of vaudeville in which the show takes place. Suzy Benzinger's costumes and the lighting design by Peter E. Sargent are both particularly strong and worthy of special praise.
Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park usually produces one big musical each year and their Gypsy is worthy of the single spot for this season. A talented cast and smart production choices allow this wonderful musical to be a success. Gypsy continues through November 16, 2001 and tickets are available at (513) 421-3888.
-- Scott Cain