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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Gypsy with Mama Rose
as a Stage Mother from Hell

Also see Richard's reviews of The Producers and Movin' Out

GypsyThe Willows Theatre Company is presenting Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondhiem's 1959 classic musical Gypsy through August 1. The production stars stage veteran Mary Bracken Phillips (Broadway's 1776 as Martha Jefferson, Annie as Grace Farrell, plus a long list of Off-Broadway productions) as Mama Rose. Ms. Phillips is also the noted lyricist of the musicals Metro, John Muir's Mountain Days and Brimstone.

Many theatre historians and critics have called Gypsy one of the most perfect book musicals of all time. It is also one of the most difficult musicals to present, and it takes great courage for a regional theatre to present a full scale production. Required are a galvanizing Mama Rose, an actress portraying Louise who can change from an "ugly duckling" to a sexy star stripper, and smooth direction. The show speeds along, showing how a fiercely ambitious show business mother pushes her two daughters up the rugged road toward stardom. The production also has to show a panorama of vaudeville and burlesque in its Depression-era setting, with frequently changing scenes. This is a tall order for any semi-professional company.

The Willows Company gives a fairly presentable production of Gypsy, with some ragged edges in several of the scenes. The company has a large cast of singers, dancers, kids and adults with canned music. The musical arrangements seem to lack a lot of brass in this production, and I did not find much zip in this score. The young kids in the first scenes are cute, and the cast of teenage dancers who appear later are very good in the footwork department.

Director Richard T. Hanson uses a very large, live "baby" lamb in "Little Lamb" that seems to upstage Briann Gagnon (Louise) and her lovely voice. The lamb is eating everything in sight while Ms. Gagnon is tenderly singing the song.

I have seen many actresses portray Mama Rose over the years, beginning with the epitome of Mama Rose - Ethel Merman. I saw her in the role three times over a period of several years. She was the greatest. Angela Lansbury, Margaret Whiting, Tyne Dale and Bernadette Peters all put their personal spin on the role. I was also fortunate to work on the film at Warners Brothers and was able to see Rosalind Russell rehearse, sing and dance on the sound stage. Meg MacKay also provided a great portrayal of Mama Rose several years ago at TheatreWorks [see Richard's review of that production].

Mary Bracken Phillips makes the Mama Rose character more harsh than most of the famous actresses I have seen in the role; this is a mother from hell. You really can't find any redeeming qualities about this Rose until the last song, "Rose's Turn," in which she gives extra power and sings the song brilliantly. Ms. Phillips has an Ethel Merman type voice in that it is powerful. It's a voice that does not need to be heavily mike. The first two songs, "Some People" and "Small World," are so deeply mike that her voice becomes piercing in the small theatre. Like Merman, Ms. Phillips is not exactly known for her expressive acting, and this is especially true in this production.

Briann Gagnon (a University of Colorado student majoring in theatre) is a vocally first rate Louise. Her performance is beautifully understated - until she becomes the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. She is not quite convincing as the toughened Gypsy Rose Lee, especially in the number "Let Me Entertain You." The switching of scenes from the various burlesques theaters leading up to Minsky's is very choppy.

Michael Ching (Antigone Falun Gong at the Aurora) holds down the role of Herbie. He is the most sympathetic follower and lover of Mama that I have seen. There is none of the Jewish "fetutzed" quality that other Herbies have had. He has nice singing chops in his duet his Mama, "You'll Never Get Away from Me." Jesse Endahl embodies that drive for stardom as Tulsa. His big dancing number, "All I Need is the Girl," is enthusiastic and gracefully performed, with Ms. Gagnon charmingly joining into the dance.

The three strippers who instruct Louise in the art of stripping stop the second act cold with their great song, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." Barbara McFadden is wonderful as the sweet wisecracking Tessie Tura, and Jill Rydman as Mazeppa gives a sharp performance while Jenni Daw is electrifying as Electra. Madeline Trumble gives a good performance as the older June. She has nice vocal chops in the farm sequence as Dainty June.

The kids are fun to watch, especially the youngest kids dancing in "Baby June and Her Newsboys." It is charming, and Baby June (Amy Diestler) all dressed up in Shirley Temple curls is the typical cutesy little girl. The teenage dancers have good dance steps choreographed by director Richard T. Hanson.

As in all of the "Gypsys" I have seen, Rose is the show. If Mary Bracken Phillips' performance seems to take fire only when she's singing, that's not unfortunate. For A semi-professional production, Willows and director Richard T Hanson have done a creditable job.

Gypsy runs through August 1 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Ave, Concord. For tickets call 925-798-1300 or visit www.willowstheatre.org.

Their next production is the West Coast Production of Stephen Cole and Claibe Richardson's musical The Night of the Hunter. Willows is also presenting Craig Bohmler and Mary Bracken Phillips' John Muir's Mountain Days at the Alhambra Performing Center in Martinez. For more information on that production, please visit www.johnmuirmusical.com.


Photo: Judy Potter


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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