Seattle Musical Theatre's Gypsy
It's one of the all-time best loved musicals of the 20th century, and the most frequently revived and remade (a Streisand film remake is pending) but that doesn't make Gypsy the classic show-biz musical by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim a slam-dunk proposition for success. In the case of the current production by Seattle Musical Theatre, I'd call it a game effort that on opening night still felt like a work in progress. Director Jeff Church, Choreographer Crystal Dawn Munkers and Musical Director John Allman knew all the proper ingredients, but this soufflé seemed just a bit under-baked.
Dubbed by its author "A Musical Fable," the show is based very loosely on the early life of a wild and wonderful woman named Louise Hovick, who became known as a bawdy, funny striptease artist named Gypsy Rose Lee. She happened to have by all accounts the mother of all stage-mothers, Rose Hovick, a much-married Seattle dame who was determined her kids would have the stage career she'd felt denied of herself. Her younger daughter June was launched into show-biz as "Baby June," and "Dainty June" before eloping in her mid-teens with a backup dancer from her act to escape her mother's machinations (she would become popular as the actress/writer June Havoc). Left with the tall gangly Louise, the act flailed as vaudeville was waning, and Louise stumbled into a hugely successful career in burlesque, becoming the highest paid stripper in the business. Madame Rose and Gypsy's relationship in the show finally erupts into the musical soliloquy "Rose's Turn" in which Rose voices all her life's regrets and disappointments, though by the musical's fade-out, the two seem to have reached something of a truce.
A key problem on opening was that an overall sense of excitement and pacing was not kept up throughout this nearly three hour show. What I liked best about this Gypsy was that director Church and choreographer Munkers don't slavishly copy the staging set out in the original staging, revivals and the screen and TV films. They open the show with a dance montage performed to the Overture that sets the scene for the kiddie show auditions that opens the show, and several of the major numbers in the production have fresh touches such as this. Burton Yuen's creative scenic design skeletally suggests just enough of each of the varied locales the Hovicks tour in the course of the story, and Rachel Wilkie's costumes are varied, colorful and in the case of the cow outfit for the "Farmboys" number, downright hilarious.
Few actresses have to contend with as many shadows of predecessors as Vanessa Miller does taking on Rose. The talented Miss Miller is nothing like Ethel Merman (whom the role was created for), Rosalind Russell or Bette Midler (the Hollywood and TV Roses), not to mention the subsequent Broadway revival Roses of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters or Tyne Daly. Miller is a bit younger-appearing than any of the aforementioned ladies, which helps in the earliest scenes when Rose's kids are little tykes. Musically, her able vocals are not in the rafters-ringing belt range of a Merman or LuPone, but her softer delivery makes it easier to warm to the early scenes of Rose singing the likes of such tender Styne/Sondheim tunes as "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me." Miller, however, struggles a bit with the brassier, conniving Rose in "Some People" and "Mr. Goldstone," though her acting chops get her through "Everything's Coming Up Roses." There is not enough fire in her penultimate confrontation with Gypsy, but Miller scores some chilling and pathos-filled moments in "Rose's Turn" and just afterwards as she keeps bowing to the audience inside her head. The role is daunting and Miller's got a lot of it right where it should be, perhaps just needing a few more performances for her Rose to reach full bloom.
Sharing most of Miller's key scenes are two of the production's strongest players, Jeff Spaulding as Herbie, the candy salesman who gets roped into managing the act for Rose and becomes her long-suffering beau, and Suzanne Merhej as the wallflower-to-showstopper Louise/Gypsy. Spaulding is disarmingly natural, warm and charming as Herbie, lacking only a bit more fire in his final scene where Herbie can no longer take Rose's broken promises. Merhej is appealing as the gentle Louise, and sings the character's touching "Little Lamb" with delicacy and heart. She handles the transformation to Gypsy well (the strip montage happily is the revised version used in recent productions) and has real strength when she tells off her meddling Mama. Miller, Spaulding and Merhej also sparkle their "Together" trio at the top of act two. Vibrant Erika Zabelle is ideally cast as Dainty June, shining brightest in the duet with Merhej for "If Mama Was Married," and Jeremy Adams has a boyish sparkle as Tulsa, June's future husband, doing well by his solo song and dance to "All I Need Is the Girl". Adding needed levity and bawdiness to the scenes where Louise becomes Gypsy are Jeanette LeGault, Natalie Ann Moe and Christine Rippii as Electra, Mazeppa and Tessie Tura, the battle-axe of burlesque who hit a comic high with their Stripping 101 number "You Gotta Get A Gimmick." Miss LeGault is also comic gem in her brief scene as the disdainful producer's secretary Miss Cratchitt in act one.
Musical director John Allman confidently lead a nine-piece band, heavy on the necessary brass, but seemingly a bit muted on the percussion, and also taking a few tempos rather too brightly in some places. Opening night was only the second time this company had played to an audience, and I've a hunch Gypsy will grow exponentially over the course of its run.
Gypsy runs through May 15, 2013, at Seattle Musical Theatre, 7120 62nd Ave NE at Magnuson Park. For tickets go to www.seattlemusicaltheatre.org.