Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

South Bay Musical Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of I and You

Marlene Berner
Photo by Katrin Auch
Whenever attending what New York Times critic Ben Brantley has referred as "what may be the greatest of all American musicals," Gypsy, I sit with both hope and skepticism until I hear Rose sing those first few notes of "Some People." After all, this is the role that most divas of a certain age—be they of Broadway or local, hometown vintage—seem to aspire. With the likes of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Imelda Staunton all trying to outdo each other, and especially to out sing the original Rose, Ethel Merman, there are plenty big shoes to fill and big mouths to live up to. Well, I am here to say that not only does South Bay Musical Theatre's Molly Thornton join a long line of Roses, she takes her place with full acting gusto and vocal bravado.

Any doubts about this Rose are quickly erased when she stomps down the theatre's aisle, demanding with a bullying scream, "Sing out, Louise" or when in her opening song she first belts with true clarity and charisma, "I had a dream, a wonderful dream, Papa." Yes, Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) would surely all approve with satisfied smiles that this Gypsy is headlined by a Rose who will once again knock the socks off her audience as have so many of her predecessors with her beautiful bellows of blast.

And as the musical progresses through its vaudeville and burlesque stages, Molly Thornton only gets better and ever more convincing in her portrayal of this most infamous of pushy—some would say monstrous—backstage mothers. A fierce steamroller ready to plow over anyone who gets in her way of making her girls big-time stars, her Rose is in constant motion as she hustles and bustles simultaneously in a half-dozen different directions to scheme, to push aside, and to boss in order to get their names on a marquee's lights—even if in the end, only on those of a seedy strip joint. With bombastic "B's," the roundest of "O's," and "R's" that roll like waves in the ocean, she commands in song such that no one can ignore her wishes. But Ms. Thornton's Rose also has a voice that, for all its richness of reverberating tones, knows how to sing playfully (as in "Together, Wherever We Go"), and she flashes a smile that is impossible not to notice and not to respond in likened fashion, even as an audience member sitting in the dark.

When in the end her prized and adored blonde starlet-in-making Baby June has long abandoned her to star in movies, and her horribly shy and second-fiddle Louise has somehow become known for her buxom beauty as the rich and famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Molly Thornton's Rose, with astounding voice and the swagger of a stage star, does what all those Roses have done before her—finally take the spotlight for herself. At that moment, she declares in a vocal volume that rings loud and true to every corner, "Everything's coming up roses, this time for me ... For me! ... For me!" And at that moment, we and Gypsy easily forgive her for all those years of marching like Sherman over the fields of others' dreams and wishes in order only to fulfill her own. As Gypsy says in the end, "It's OK, momma! OK, Rose!"

Mollie Thornton's Rose is not a one-woman show, by far. When in duet with Tim Reynolds's Herbie, her patiently loyal paramour and the devoted booking agent of her kids' act, the two play off each other in fine and flirty fashion in "Small World." Later, when they dance as two lovers in "You'll Never Get Away from Me," they both admit in harmony, "I couldn't get away from you, even I wanted to." Tim Reynolds brings a fully pleasing voice in song and a charming, endearing demeanor with twinkles in his eyes for Rose's daughters and resignation in his shoulders for Rose's delayed "yes" to his ongoing proposals for marriage.

Rose's daughters, June and Louise, bring their songs full of squeals and silly stage antics to the spotlight as they progress through various stages of age. Felicia Chang is delightful as the squeaky voiced, somersaulting Baby June in Shirley Temple curls and layers of petticoats. She is joined by the equally wonderful, stumbling-over-her-own-feet, barely-opening-her-mouth Young Louise (Zoe Wheatonfox) in "May We Entertain You." Through clever staging and strobe lighting, they eventually transform before our eyes into gangly teenagers who Rose insists on dressing, treating, and selling in auditions as no more than 12-year-olds. Rhona McFadyen is Dainty Jane, who must continue to sing like she is 5, screech in the highest register possible the required "Hello, everybody ... My name is June ... What's yours?," and end every night with two twirling batons in full patriotic red, white, and blue.

As Louise, Marlene Berner is the unselfish sister who endures Rose's ignoring her and making her don a humiliating cow costume and yet at the same time defends and protects Rose whenever anyone, including June, speaks against her. She serves up a crystal clear voice full of innocence and awe in "Little Lamb" (while cooing over the too-cute Oscar the dog, aka Chowsie, costumed in sheep's wool) and joins June in a fun, sister-bonding "If Momma Was Married." She breaks our hearts as she suffers in silent, teenage puppy love for one of the boys of their troupe, Tulsa (Marc Gonzalez), who almost brings the audience to its feet mid-show with his terrific voice and display of dance that features leaps and plunges, ballet and soft-shoe, and hints of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in "All I Need Is the Girl."

As Gypsy Rose Lee, Louise becomes momma's dream in ways Rose at first sees as a nightmare and then comes to admire. She has her own diva moment in various stages of elegant dress and undress as she finally leaves timid, no-talent Louise behind to bring a full, mature, and invigorating voice to "Let Me Entertain You."

In this large cast of over twenty-five, every actor brings pizzazz and personality as well as voices that sell their songs and roles. Jeff Tuttle is a silent but perfectly suited center of attention in the crowd-pleasing "Mr. Goldstone." Kayvon Kordestani is trumpet-blowing stripper Mazeppa, touting "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," along with her fellow aged sisters of the trade: the butterfly-winged Tessie Tura, who bounces as a somewhat over-bloated ballerina (Karen DeHart), and the bent-over, barely moving Electra who lights up in just the right places (Barbara Heninger). Needless to say, they receive hoots and hollers for an encore.

Richard Cartwright has designed a fun, easily movable series of set pieces that quickly transport us to a dozen or so stages, back stages, and dressing rooms all across America as well as to such places a Chinese restaurant in New York (Rose's favorite), a crowded apartment flat in Akron, and a tented, Depression-era encampment in Desert, Texas. He is aided in creating just the right moods of burlesque back rooms, dark alleyways, or Minsky's New York grandeur by Michael Glenn Muñoz's lighting and Dan Mister's and Dan Singletary's sound designs. Little girls in stage ribbons and frills, dancing newsboys and farm boys, stage cows, strippers, and of course Rose herself and many more are all costumed with fun and flair by Mae Heagerty-Matos. The silly steps of kids on stage, the comic steps of trios and duos, and the wonderfully sophisticated solo of Tulsa are all choreographed by Janie Scott and rehearsed under the able direction of dance captain Michael Saenz. Janie Scott has employed a lot of love and ingenuity in directing this large cast and keeps the show moving through all its many settings and scenes with a mostly well-paced, well-timed eye (but with some noticeable slow down of momentum in a second half that has a bit of drag to it at times).

With all there is to praise in this production of a musical that has many parts and a role as iconic as any in musical theatre, the one serious downfall is unfortunately the orchestra. With the opening notes of the Overture, my stomach got a huge knot. The wind and brass instruments time and again do not measure up to the demands of Jule Styne's score, and they come close to ruining Rose's triumphant finale, "Rose's Turn." Fortunately, the singers do not seem to notice and universally perform with style and skill; and an excellent percussionist does keep the rhythm tight and sound effects fun.

Overall, much applause is due this fine cast and its starring, stunning Rose. South Bay Musical Theatre has brought to its local audience a Gypsy well worth seeing and one that will leave big smiles, humming voices, and a full heart with every exiting patron.

South Bay Musical Theatre's production of Gypsy continues through June 11, 2016, at the Saratoga Civic Theatre, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 24 hours a day 408-266-4734).