Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Though the show gets its title from Gypsy Rose Lee, the legendary stripper of the early twentieth century, its story centers more on Gypsy's cutthroat stage mother Rose (a commanding Christine Sherrill), who at first stops at nothing to make a star of her youngest daughter June (played first by the delightful Skyla I'Lece Woodard and later by the "very versatile" Tanisha Moore). With the help of her agent and lover Herbie (an engaging Martin Moran), Rose drags her daughter into the biggest houses in vaudeville, but when June's prospects dim, her mother's desperation grows and she turns her attention to her other daughter Louise, poignantly played by Mary Mattison.
Whoever takes on the role of Rose has big shoes to fill; this is an iconic role, strongly identified with a number of legendary performers: Broadway royalty including Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, and more recently Patti LuPone have made star turns in this show. (The latter two won Tony Awards for their portrayals, while Ms. Merman lost to the equally talented Mary Martin that year.) In this production, veteran actress Christine Sherrill gives us a somewhat wounded and fragile characterization of a woman who easily could flatten out into a cold and narcissistic caricature. Ms. Sherrill anchors this production quite capably, giving everyone else a strong center around which to orbit.
The role of Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee has never resonated as strongly. (The real Gypsy, when asked whether she cared that this musical centered on her mother more than on her, replied that all that mattered to her was that her name was the title.) Mary Mattison's Gypsy is an authentic-feeling blend of innocence and sex appeal. The supporting cast is just as strong and occasionally stronger. As Miss Cratchitt, Lynda Clark is a riot. Playing multiple roles as Pop, Mr. Goldstone, and Pastey, David F. Bartlett is chameleon-like in his versatility. "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" is always an audience favorite, and Amma Osei and J. Elaine Marcos are standouts for their comedic performances.
This production features ten students from the North Carolina Theatre Conservatory, the training program of the North Carolina Theatre, in younger roles, and special mention must be made of the talented Skyla I'Lece Woodard as Baby June and Ellen Mackenzie Pierce as Baby Louise.
One can tell that director Eric Woodall has a great reverence for the material, and he does not stray from the time-tested formula of this show. He has assembled a top-notch team that delivers exceptional production values. Set design by Michael Anania is Broadway quality, and costumes by Thomas G. Marque rise to every occasion. Samuel Rushen's lighting design is the equivalent of a kid let loose in a candy store. There are lights seemingly everywhere, with color changes underscoring the slightest expression. Strobe lighting in one scene may be disconcerting to some; though its intent is clear, the effect may be lost if the audience is forced to turn their eyes away to avoid a headache.
The true highlight of this production, as with any production of Gypsy, is the score. This is composer Jule Styne's finest work, and with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim you'll rarely go wrong. A number of these songs have emerged as standards, including "Some People" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses." The beautiful orchestrations are the icing on the cake, handled masterfully by music director/conductor Laura Bergquist. The overture alone is worth the admission price of this show, in an era when many new musicals forego an overture and an entr'acte. In the modern nostalgia-fest The Drowsy Chaperone, Man in Chair makes the case that the overture is a "musical appetizer"what better way to set the tone for the greatness to come? I'm not too proud to admit that hearing the overture of this great musical in this excellent production brought a joyful tear to my eye.
Formative musicals like Gypsy should be produced on a regular basis, and hats off to North Carolina Theatre for recognizing this. In a world that embraces new ideas and new material, there is something to be said for recognizing and appreciating the shows and the artists who blazed the trail.
Gypsy, through November 19, 2017, at North Carolina Theatre in the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.nctheatre.com or by phone at 919-831-6941, ext. 6944.
Playwright: Arthur Laurents
Cast (in order of appearance):