Gypsy, Lost In Yonkers and Ain't Misbehavin'
Also see Elizabeth's review of Wellstone!
The show - crafted by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) - uses the memoirs of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee as inspiration, but the show is as much about the mother Rose as the daughter, Louise. Rose comes off as the worst showbiz mom imaginable, manipulating her two daughters from the very first scene and pushing down Louise in favor of her more talented sister, June. Rose has always wanted to be a success in the theater, so she takes her two daughters on the road as they try to crack the upper echelon of vaudeville. Along the way, they collect a trio of young boys to fill out the act, and they get a manager, Herbie, who has his eyes as much on the oft-divorced Rose as he does the act.
They come close to the top, but Rose's inability to let go of her daughters' careers short circuits that, and as the Depression rages and vaudeville slowly dies, the act makes it way back down the ladder. After June leaves, it is left to Louise - who is much less talented than her sister - to carry the show. Their journey eventually finds the troupe in burlesque, which leads to Louise's more famous persona.
Gypsy centers on Rose and her relationships with Herbie and Louise. The three actors dig into their meaty roles with relish. As Louise, Simone Perrin (who made a vocal splash this summer in Kevin Kling's In Hopes of Claudia) shows she has the acting chops to go with the amazing voice. Louise spends much of the show overshadowed by her mother, but it is clear from early on that there is something strong within the timid girl. Tod Petersen plays off the conflict within Herbie to great effect, showing the inner conflicts that finally come to a head at show's end.
In the end, Gypsy is Rose's show, and Jody Briskey is up to the challenge. The character is "on" from the very first moment, as she enters the auditorium where her daughters are preparing their act. From there, she is a bundle of pure energy, never stopping to examine her situation or what the life is doing to her daughters or herself. Instead, it is all the mad pursuit of top billing. Briskey balances this with the woman inside the bluster - the woman who only wants what is best for her children, even if she can't see that what they want most is to be free to make their own decisions. Add in a terrific voice that nails the character's signature act closers "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" and you have one of the best performances of the year.
Director Peter Rothstein embraces vaudeville here, from on-stage antics (a ventriloquist, plate spinners and bad jokes all make appearances) to the title cards that detail each scene. Rothstein's open stage design, where the costume racks are on stage and the actors often wait for their entrances seated in the back, only adds to the sense of being in a theater of the period, as does the small orchestra, which focuses the attention clearly on the voices.
With each production, Theatre Latte Da continues to explore the heart of musical theater, showing that there is much more than glitz and hit songs in the genre.
Gypsy runs through November 5 at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. Tickets are $15 to $29. For more information, call 651-209-6689 or visit www.latteda.org.
Photo: Rick Spaulding
The proof is in the production, however, and Lost in Yonkers is a fine addition to the Guthrie's legacy. It helps that the show is far from typical Simon. Part of a sequence of autobiographical shows, Lost in Yonkers is darker than much of his work, centering on a completely unlikable character that isn't redeemed by the action of the play.
Simon's Tony and Pulitzer-prize winning play follows Jay and Arty, two young New Yorkers who are forced to live with their less-than-beloved grandmother while their widower father works on the road during World War II. Grandmother Kurnitz is a tough and bitter German, who has been hurt by life and wants to make sure the two are ready for the terrors and the sadness that wait in adulthood. Also living in the Yonkers household are Bella, their damaged aunt and - from time to time - Louie, an uncle with ties to the underworld.
Simon digs deep and finds plenty of truths about the relationships within families, and crafts a fascinating character with Grandma Kurnitz. Roseleen Linehan eagerly takes on the role, never making the character likeable, but letting us into enough of her pain and angst to make her understandable. The two youngsters are double cast, but the pair I saw - Noah Madoff and Dylan Frederick - held their own amid the seasoned cast, creating real chemistry with the rest of the players and making you believe that they were brothers. The rest of the players have their moments as well, especially Finnerty Steeves as the often mentally lost Bella and Stephen Pelinski as tough-guy Louie.
The script closes a bit too cleanly for comfort, though with much rougher edges than usual in a Simon play. The staging on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust is clean, though the very size of the stage makes it hard to get a sense of the confinement within the apartment.
Lost in Yonkers marks Simon's debut at the Guthrie. And while I wouldn't want an overdose of the playwright's work at the theater, this production shows there is more in the playwright's repertoire than The Odd Couple.
Lost in Yonkers runs through November 12 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd St. S., Minneapolis. Tickets are $22 to $52. For tickets or more information, call 612-377-224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.
Photo © Michal Daniel, 2006
Penumbra kicks off its 30th season with a bit of pure celebration. For two hours, a talented cast of vocalists digs in and makes the classic music of Fats Waller their own. The show is light on narrative, leaving most of Waller's life story for the program. Instead, it is all about the music.
And what amazing music it is. Waller moved easily from blues to jazz to swing, creating a stunning music legacy. Director Patdro Harris stages the show during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s, letting the actors play out a second story behind the music - one in which a long repressed population takes the opportunity to step out and make a culture of their own. The cast of performers love every moment of the show, and that is infectious for the audience. Between the five vocalists and a hot four-piece band (led by music director Sanford Moore) you have the talent to pull off Waller's classic music.
Ain't Misbehavin' runs through Oct. 22 at Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul. Tickets are $15 to $30. For tickets and more information, call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.