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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Gypsy, Laughing All the Way and
Voices of Christmas

Gypsy
Tovah Feldshuh
Ah, Gypsy. What a great show.

Ah, Tovah Feldshuh in Gypsy. What a terrible show.

How can one begin to describe how wrongheaded and unmusical this production of Gypsy at Bristol Riverside Theatre is? Well, let's start with what's good about it. The 1959 Broadway classic by Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) still retains its sparkle. The Styne/Sondheim score is one of the best ever written for a musical, and Laurents' book, which chronicles the decline of vaudeville and the rise of burlesque by depicting the life of the celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her hellish stage mother Rose, remains a gem of dramatic insight and construction.

BRT's production is blessed by a superb supporting cast. Strong-voiced Robert Newman gives just the right blend of compassion and toughness to Herbie, Madame Rose's boyfriend and the agent for her daughters' act. Amanda Rose blossoms before our eyes as she transforms from the mousy, withdrawn Louise to the tough and glamorous Gypsy. Brittney Lee Hamilton hits all the right brassy marks as Louise's sister June (and she's complemented well by Gaby Bradbury, a terrific tap dancer who plays June as a child in the early scenes). There's smooth showmanship by Joe Grandy as the eager hoofer Tulsa, and marvelous comic turns by Bethe B. Austin, Demetria Joyce Bailey and Kathryn Kendall as a trio of strippers who show Gypsy the ropes. (Kendall also supplies the excellent choreography.) And even actors with minor roles make good impressions, like Samantha Kuhl, who's adorable as Agnes, a dancer in Madame Rose's final troupe.

So, how does the rest of the show stack up? Well, let's start with how the show sounds and looks. The 11-piece orchestra is sluggish and thin; the six-piece band for BRT's spring musical Little Women actually had a fuller sound. Little Women also had attractive sets and lighting, but those elements are dark and dreary in Gypsy, making it an unappealing show to look at.

But it's not just the physical trappings that doom this Gypsy. Aside from a few musical numbers, act one of director Keith Baker's production never comes to life; almost none of the jokes get laughs. The show is played at a snail's pace, lacking the drive that can get an audience invested in the story. (The slow scenery changes, executed by a turntable, don't help.) Act two fares better, but by then it's too late to redeem the production.

And then there's the leading lady. As played by Tovah Feldshuh, Madame Rose strikes fear into the hearts of theater owners, booking agents and child actors everywhere as she pushes for her daughters to succeed against all odds. Feldshuh attacks the role with a ferocity that puts other Roses to shame. (And that's saying a lot, because I saw Patti LuPone play this role. Twice.)

At times, Feldshuh's approach is effective. When Rose clutches her stomach in pain as she recalls her own mother walking out on her, you can see that Feldshuh is internalizing Rose's anguish with a palpable intensity. But Gypsy is a musical comedy, and Feldshuh's performance is one of the reasons this show is so short on laughs. When Rose asks a waitress for a teaspoon after stealing an entire table's worth of silverware, there's not a titter from the crowd—because this Rose hasn't just intimidated everyone around her, she has intimidated the audience too. The warmth that radiates from Newman and the rest of the cast is completely missing from Feldshuh's garish, nuance-free performance.

Then there's her singing. With a voice so ragged it makes Elaine Stritch sound like Elaine Paige, Feldshuh was a terrible choice to sing the part of Madame Rose. On some songs, like the classics "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn," keys are dropped to accommodate Feldshuh's range. On "Small World" and "Mr. Goldstone" a few of Rose's lines are sung by Herbie, presumably to relieve the star's vocal strain. Feldshuh veers between yelling lyrics and belting them off-key—sometimes in the same line. And the big final number, "Rose's Turn," stops the show for all the wrong reasons: Feldshuh does seemingly random high kicks, flashes her undergarments, and does two cartwheels, all while singing with a heavy, slurring vibrato. Whatever admiration one may have had for the bravado of Feldshuh's dramatic performance in the book scenes fades away with every high kick.

Who should see BRT's Gypsy? Well, Robert Newman's many fans from his decades on TV's "Guiding Light" will treasure his commanding, compelling take on Herbie. And connoisseurs of bizarre, eccentric performances will want to add Feldshuh's Rose to their checklist. But everyone else should stay far, far away.

Gypsy runs through January 15, 2012, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $10 to $55 and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, or online at www.brtstage.org.


Laughing All the Way
Tony Braithwaite in
Laughing All the Way

Photo: Bill D'Agostino
'Tis the season for holiday shows—and even if you're tired of hearing Christmas songs on the radio, two local shows celebrate the season with plenty of spirit.

At Act II Playhouse in Ambler, this year's edition of Laughing All the Way finds Tony Braithwaite and three sidekicks performing a genial hour of song parodies and lighthearted Christmas-related humor. Most of the night is self-consciously corny, in a way that makes it appropriate for the whole family. But two scenes make it worthwhile: Braithwaite's dead-on recreation of Johnny Carson's "Carnac" routine, and an ingenious ten-minute improv skit in which an interview with an audience member provides the basis for a parody of It's a Wonderful Life. Skits this sharp would be welcome any time of year.

Meanwhile, at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, there's something more ambitious: Voices of Christmas, a 90-minute concert/cabaret featuring everything from hymns ("O Holy Night," "Silent Night") to pop songs without a direct yuletide connection (Sara Bareilles' "The Light," Nick Lowe's "Peace, Love and Understanding"). In between there are humor pieces and personal reflections, all delivered by a talented quartet—Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Maggie Lakis, Caroline Dooner and Ben Michael (with bandleader Jamison Foreman lending his voice to a few songs).

Voices of Christmas
Caroline Dooner, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Jamison Forman, Ben Michael and Maggie Lakis in
Voices of Christmas

Photo: Plate 3
The mood is playful at times, with the cast adding ukulele and toy piano to "Good King Wenceslas," but mostly it's reflective, with the cast members offering personal anecdotes (Clemons-Hopkins' is the best, a charming reminder of the importance of family). For the most part, the cast supplies the charisma to make it all go down easy. Michael is, sadly, the exception here; he sings many of his songs in a discomforting falsetto, and his "personal Christmas story" section of the show is strange and self-centered.

Despite a few dutiful nods to religion, director Matthew Decker has made this a mostly secular holiday show; the big audience sing-along is not for a carol, it's for the old Cass Elliot hit "Make Your Own Kind of Music." And Maura Roche's set design forsakes wreaths and garland for a landscape of bare trees. That may rule this show out for some people. But for those wanting holiday entertainment that's a bit adventurous, Voices of Christmas is worth checking out for its ambiance that blends the sweet with the stark and the traditional with the contemporary. Voices of Christmas will put you into a festive mood without resorting to any Christmas clichés.

Laughing All the Way runs through December 31, 2011, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $27 to $33, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200, or online at www.act2.org.

Voices of Christmas runs through December 31, 2011, and is presented by Theatre Horizon at the Centre Theater, 208 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices are $29, with discounts available for seniors and students, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-283-2230, or online at www.theatrehorizon.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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