Arthur Laurents' book and music by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim continue to be enduring. The storyline features Rose, who is simultaneously galvanic and ever controlling, as she prods her two daughters toward careers in show business. Tim Brown (a busy set designer whose work must and does shift around fluently to match many musical numbers) brings us to the 1920s and times of vaudeville. Baby June (Annie Tolis), a child star able to easily sing "May We Entertain You?," overshadows her sister Baby Louise (Madison Young). Rose, who needs money, clashes early with her father Pop (Michael James Leslie). Soon, the girls have grown older and it is apparent that June will leave her mother's smothering nest. Meanwhile, Rose (already married three times) meets a talent agent named Herbie (Scott Ripley) who might very well stay the course with her whether or not they marry. Uggams closes the first act with the classic, "Everything's Coming Up Roses."
The second act begins and Louise (now played by Amandina Altomare), growing into womanhood, gets stuck in a burlesque show. Three strippers absolutely snatch the spotlight from all as they cavort to and fro, over and under, front and back, and (use your imagination). Congratulations to actors Ariana Shore, Cassandra Dupler and MacKenzie Leigh Friedmann for, ahem, pulling it offslapstick galore. They advise everyone as to proper procedure in "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."
This production of the musical fable is tough to type. On the one hand, Altomare as Louise, Ripley as Herbie and others are top level talents. Alanna Saunders is impressive as adolescent June. Most in the cast more than hold their own. Annie Tolis catches one's eye early as Baby June and it will be fun to observe her development as a musical performer; she shows great promise. This is a large group and director Cardinal, music director N David Williams, and choreographer Cassie Abate present a vivacious and snappy show. Lisa Loen's bright costuming greatly enhances all. The second act, more talky than the first, bogs down a bit. The mix of actors who have differing levels of training and experience is not always even. On the whole, however, the cumulative result is quite pleasing.
Then, there is Uggams, an award winning actor, who brought a sweet buzz to the U Conn campus on the evening
Gypsy opened. Obviously comfortable being front and center, she takes on a role not often if ever assigned to African-American actors. It has been dealt to individuals like Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters. Uggams has said that she had a conversation some years ago with Arthur Laurents about playing the part. She leapt at the current opportunity with CRT.
Hers is not exactly a sympathetic character. Rose is too powerful and even haughty as she presses her daughters. No wonder she suffers a breakdown. Ultimately, Louise evolves into the famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. It is not until the final moments that Uggams' Rose is able to confess that she has coaxed so urgently for her own purposes. Hence, she might reconcile, only now, with Louise.
Uggams has a fine singing voice, yet this musical challenges her. She truly knows how to put across a show tune and that is all to the very good. Finally, her energy (at 71), savvy, and knowledge foster a rewarding performance. She is commanding and it is a treat to take this in.
Gypsycontinues at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre as part of Connecticut Repertory Theatre's Summer Nutmeg Series in Storrs, Connecticut through July 20th, 2014. For tickets, visit www.crt.uconn.edu or call (860) 486-2113. It all takes place at the University of Connecticut.
- Fred Sokol