Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Ross Valley Players / Mountain Play Association
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations and Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious

Jill Jacobs and Dyan McBride
Photo by Robin Jackson
Gypsy is arguably one of the greatest musicals of all time. With a taut book by Arthur Laurents (based on the memoir of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), some of the most memorable songs of the American theatre (by Jule Styne) perfectly matched with the charming, funny, occasionally bitter lyrics from the master Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy has been thrilling audiences since its debut in 1959.

Gypsy tells the story of Madame Rose (Dyan McBride), who has been described as "the ultimate stage mother," and her two daughters, June (Alexandra Fry and Julia Ludwig, at different ages) and Louise (Jill Jacobs), as they attempt to make it as an act on the vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s to early 1930s. To achieve her goal–and make no mistake, it's her obsession, not her daughters–Rose harangues and hectors her children, dragging them across the country from theater to theater, always looking for the big break. But with vaudeville on the decline, it's ultimately a futile quest.

Madame Rose is one of the most complex characters ever written for the musical stage. Though she seems to love her children, and expresses–time and time again–that everything she does is for them, when it comes right down to it, she is truly only in it for herself. This is something those around her–June and Louise, the other young performers in the act, and Herbie (DC Scarpelli), Rose's paramour, companion, and the act's agent–come to realize only slowly.

But Rose has such charm and is such a relentless pursuer of her dream, that it's almost impossible for anyone to achieve escape velocity once they've fallen into her orbit. Anyone who stands in her way–whether it's a stagehand, a theater owner, a booker, or even Herbie or her children–is perpetually in danger of being steamrolled by this force of nature.

It's this sense of mania and obsession that is very much on the page of Laurents' text, but somehow missing in the performance of Dyan McBride as Rose. McBride is undoubtedly a skilled performer: she was terrific in the Mountain Play Association's production of Hello, Dolly! this past summer (MPA also produced this show in partnership with Ross Valley Players), where she was able to take an iconic role and make it her own. But as Rose, McBride is simply too gentle. Her characterization lacks the vitriol and the sonic oomph the role requires. In short, at the show's end, when Rose sings the closing "Rose's Turn," we should have by now come to realize the monster that is this character. Yet because of McBride's somewhat more tender approach to her character, we don't despise her quite as much as we ought to.

The rest of the cast do wonderful work, especially Alexandra Fry as Baby June. She plays her character as a mostly talentless hack who is nonetheless supremely confident in her skills–in part because her mother has fed her this lie all her life. Fry keeps her eyes wide open and wears a smile so unrelenting that it's almost as if it's been tattooed on her face.

Director and choreographer Zoë Swenson-Graham and scenic designer Zachary Isen are to be congratulated for the way they've made the most of the Barn Theatre's relatively cramped space, both in terms of location changes and Swenson-Graham's blocking and pacing.

The music for this production is mostly pre-recorded, with music director Jon Gallo at a keyboard positioned in the house, presumably to cue up the segments and add fill as required. At the performance I attended, there was plenty of volume from the score, but the performers had trouble at times being heard completely over the recorded track.

If you've never seen a production of Gypsy, this will be a pleasant first experience of the wonders Laurents, Styne and Sondheim have created. But you will have to look a little more closely if you want to experience the darker aspects of this amazing bit of theatrical art.

Ross Valley Players and Mountain Play Association's Gypsy runs through December 18, 2022, at The Barn Theater, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $40 general admission. For tickets and information, please call 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visit