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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Gypsy
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Waitress and Eva Noblezada with Seth Rudetsky


Jamie Michael Parnell, Cassandra Klaphake,
and Alicia Babin

Photo by Scott Samplin
Considered by many (myself included) to be one of the greatest musicals of all time, Gypsy is a backstage story that centers on the mother of all stage mothers and the rise to stardom of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Arizona Broadway Theatre is presenting one of the best productions of the show I've ever seen, one that is perfectly cast and solidly directed, with leads who create realistic characters and creative elements that are impressive.

Gypsy came together just two years after the success of West Side Story, with three members of the creative team from that show–bookwriter Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins–plus composer Jule Styne. Laurents wisely crafted Lee's 1957 autobiography, "Gypsy: A Memoir," into a musical fable and a cautionary tale of the desperate desire and drive for fame, and focused it not just on the rise of Lee to famous burlesque star but mainly on her mother Rose Hovick, who is presented as the ultimate stage mother. Laurents' book is perfectly constructed, with fully fleshed out characters and without a single scene that is unnecessary to the story. The score is excellent as well, with the combination of Sondheim's witty lyrics and Styne's driving music.

The musical is set in the tacky world of the touring vaudeville circuit of the 1920s and the seedy burlesque houses of the 1930s. Rose is a forceful woman who does everything possible in her desperate attempt to turn her two daughters, June and Louise, into stars. Laurents' book paints Rose as a woman we equally admire, love and pity, but we also cringe at her determination and delusion as she prods and pushes her daughters in her attempt to make them famous, while deep-down hungering for the limelight herself.

Under Danny Gorman's astute direction, the entire ABT cast shine. Cassandra Klaphake is a force to be reckoned with as Rose. Rose may be pushy and determined on the exterior, but Klaphake's beautifully layered performance allows us to see Rose's softer, caring side once a man named Herbie comes into her life, both to manage her two girls and also as Rose's beau. Appropriately, those moments are only brief, as Klaphake never lets Rose's bulldozer-like drive ever disappear, even when fear and desperation ultimately take over. Laurents' book has many funny moments and Klaphake ensures we see Rose's humorous side and that her comical lines shine. There are also a few brief times when Rose becomes truly terrifying and Klaphake doesn't shy away from letting those moments be both impactful and cringe-worthy. Her strong singing voice delivers gorgeous versions of Rose's songs, including a belting "Everything's Coming Up Roses," and a lively and ferocious "Rose's Turn." Klaphake is delivering an entirely believable and memorable portrayal of this showbiz trouper who won't let anything, or anyone, get in her way.

As Louise, Alicia Babin does an excellent job transforming from the timid, shy and quiet tomboy who is always in the background and in the shadow of her more talented sister to the woman who realizes she actually is beautiful and can use her sex to her advantage. Louise is the character that changes the most throughout the musical and Babin does a great job in the first half of the show, with soft line delivery and downcast eyes depicting Louise's uncertainty and shyness, and in the second half, once Louise finds her place in the world blossoms into a woman who can hold her own and even stand up to her mother.

Jamie Michael Parnell is charming and warm as Herbie. While Herbie is continually manipulated by Rose, and the role can be one where the actress playing Rose walks all over the actor playing Herbie, that isn't the case here, as this Herbie is able to hold his own against Rose. When Herbie has a breakdown, Parnell's depiction is entirely believable and heartwrenching.

With a biting portrayal, Katie Scarlett Swaney is wonderful as June, a young woman whose mother refuses to let grow up. She and Babin deliver one of the best duets of "If Momma Was Married" I've seen, as it isn't just funny but they both ensure each lyric is sung with emotion and meaning to provide a full understanding of what June and Louise are feeling. Swaney's facial expressions are as sharp as her line delivery.

Andrew Ruggieri exhibits some nice athletic dancing, including a high flip, as Tulsa, one of the boys Rose hires for their traveling act, in his "All I Need Is the Girl" dance solo. Liz Fallon, Blair Beasley and Kiani Nelson are hilarious as three rough, bickering strippers who deliver a superb, hilarious and crowd-pleasing version of "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," with Fallon's Tessie Tura, the stripper who has seen it all, excellent in her scenes with Babin as well. Beasley also does a good job, with nice comic timing, as a no-nonsense secretary who has to deal with Rose.

Gorman's direction of the cast keeps the show grounded in reality but also ensures the emotional issues at the core resonate. His actors have believable relationships with each other while also creating natural characters. Kurtis Overby's wonderful choreography and Gorman's musical staging create many showstopping musical numbers. James May's music direction delivers rich vocals from the entire cast.

The scenic design by Nate Bertone uses a permanent backstage setting to frame the various scenes, with a large, false proscenium center stage that rotates throughout the show to depict where the scene is taking place: onstage, backstage or, when in a tilted position, a location outside of the theatre. It works extremely well for this musical, as most scenes take place inside a theatre. Carter Conaway's costume designs are excellent, with great period-perfect clothing and vaudeville performance pieces as well as three hilarious stripper outfits. The effective lighting design by Aaron Curry uses rich colors throughout.

The public has always been fascinated by backstage stories that depict the rise to stardom of well-known people. There have also been many TV shows and movies that portray parents who are desperate and sometimes do questionable things to try to make their children famous. Perhaps our fascination with both of those topics is why Gypsy is produced so often. With an excellent cast and direction, Arizona Broadway Theatre presents a solid and winning production of this perfect musical.

Gypsy runs through February 20, 2022, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.azbroadway.org or call 623 776-8400.

Direction: Danny Gorman
Choreography: Kurtis Overby
Music Direction: James May
Scenic Design: Nate Bertone
Lighting Design: Aaron Curry
Sound Design: Jesse Worley
Costume and Wig Design: Carter Conaway
Production Stage Manager: Leigh Treat
Production Coordinator: Jamie Parnell
Associate Artistic Director: Kurtis Overby
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting & Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Uncle Jocko: Tony Blosser
Georgie: Stephen Hohendorf
Balloon Girl: Alexia Lorch
Baby June: Claire Calihan/McKenzie Lopezlira
Baby Louise: Brooklyn Martin/Samantha Zell
Rose: Cassandra Klaphake
Pop: Lionel Ruland
Rich Boy: Parker Pitt/Zacary Nelson
Tap Dancer: Maddie Sue Miller/Savannah Farr
Boy Scout: Wyatt Chamoff/Elliot Noah Thompson
Weber: Tony Blosser
Herbie: Jamie Michael Parnell
Dainty June: Katie Scarlett Swaney
Louise: Alicia Babin
Yonkers: Stephen Hohendorf
Angie: Albert Hsueh
Tulsa: Andrew Ruggieri
L.A.: Thomas Whitcomb
Mr. Goldstone: Tony Blosser
Miss Cratchit: Blair Beasley
Hollywood Blondes: Alyssa Armstrong, Alexia Lorch, Delaney Spanko, Destiny Walsh
Cigar: Lonnie Ruland
Pastey: Tony Blosser
Tessie Tura: Liz Fallon
Mazeppa: Blair Beasley
Electra: Kiani Nelson
Renee: Alexia Lorch
Phil: Thomas Whitcomb
Bougeron-Cochon: Lionel Ruland


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