Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2004
Gypsy is a great big, old-fashioned musical. Big is the operative word here. It calls for a big cast and endless scenery and costume changes as it spans a couple of decades and tries to tell the interlocking stories of several people's lives.
Someone once wrote “Legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee penned one work of fiction (if you don't count her autobiography)” This show is based on that autobiography, but the libretto by Arthur Laurents focuses much more on Gypsy’s mother, Rose. Along the way we learn a lot about her sister June, her mother’s fiancé Herbie, the various stage kids they add to their act, about the dying art of vaudeville, and the almost obsolete art of burlesque.
This show has been wildly popular since its Broadway debut in 1959 for three reasons:
1) The score, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is just great.
2) Mama Rose is a tour de force role for any actress “of a certain age”
3) It has strippers.
Gypsy has been a standard of American musical theatre for so long now that it seems almost blasphemous to question it, but watching the production last night at the Mac-Haydn led me to ponder whether or not the show is too big, whether it couldn’t use a judicious pruning or a tightened focus on fewer characters and ideas. Keep most of the score and rewrite the book. This radical idea came to my mind after I left the theatre and started to analyze why I was exhausted rather than elated. Kathy Halenda is very good as Mama Rose and Kelly L.Shook provides many touching moments as Louise aka Gypsy. It’s fun to hear all those great songs. Kristen Clark, Karla Shook, and Trisha Stever are a hoot as a trio of savvy strippers. The stripping itself is a little on the tame side, but the Mac-Haydn is a family theatre after all. What was wrong?
And the answer I came up with was that no one thing was specifically wrong, but that everything together was just too much. Too many songs, too many scenes, too many characters. Even Halenda looked tired at her final bow, which is understandable having just carried an entire show on her shoulders for three hours twice in one day. None of this is the fault of director, cast, or crew. This is a big show and it takes a big effort to mount it. Director Joseph Patton has done a good job of keeping the whole affair moving along.
I was pleased to see Kelly Shook in the role of Louise. Just as Louise is portrayed as the overlooked daughter, hers tends to be the overlooked role in this show. People identify a production by the actress who plays Rose. No one remembers who played Louise, except for Natalie Wood in the movie. Shook is a very good Louise. An attractive woman and a strong dancer, she is capable of appearing gawky and clumsy as the role requires for most of the first act. Shook makes the transition from young girl to young woman, but, alas, she fails to make the final leap to mature and sexy celebrity. This is a common failing among actresses who play Louise, and Shook certainly gives her best effort. She does pull off some stunning and tricky rapid-fire costume changes at the end which would make any stripper proud. Kudos to her dresser!
Halenda is an excellent Mama Rose. Rose is a force of nature and so is Halenda, with her eyes blazing and her hair piled up in an amazing imitation of Ethel Merman’s. Halenda may have Merman’s hair, but she has no need to borrow anything else. She is a superb Broadway belter in her own right and has the acting chops to make the role her own. I would not be surprised to learn that she has played the role before. It is a natural fit.
Jimm Halliday has designed some very attractive Depression-era outfits for Halenda, and all the cast. Costuming a show like this on what must be a fairly limited budget is a Herculean task and Halliday always makes it look easy. Katie Kuhlenschmidt as the older June is a lot of fun. She forces her voice into a cutesy squeak and performs cartwheels, high kicks, and splits in her baby doll dresses until you want to slap her, but manages to express June’s frustration at being forced to live as a perpetual child in the scene surrounding If Mama Was Married.
Gypsy gives the Mac-Haydn a chance to bring some child actors on the stage, and there are some familiar faces as well as some interesting newcomers in the crop. The roles of Baby June and Baby Louise are double cast, with Kelly Swint and Lawson Young sharing the former, and Julianna Fisher and Hannah Burke sharing the latter. I saw Swint and Burke and found them both very impressive. Baby June is the showier part, and Swint was all squeak and giggle as she belted out Let Me Entertain You. Three young boys – Jonathon Byron-Woodin, Darrin French and Tyler Stanton - also get the chance to strut their stuff as miniature chorus boys in June’s act. The brief scene under the strobe light where the younger actors are replaced by their adult counterparts is nicely done.
I found Jim Middleton absolutely bland as Herbie, Rose’s supposed fiancé and manager of her children’s ill-fated acts. I know that Herbie is not supposed to be a powerful, assertive man, but Middleton might as well have been a department store mannequin for all the warmth he brought to the role.
As mentioned earlier, Karla Shook, Kristen Clark and Trisha Stever make the most out of their turns as veteran strippers. Their number You Gotta Get a Gimmick is always a crowd pleaser. Karla Shook is also the choreographer of the show, and she has done a good if predictable job. Gypsy is a show about people who don’t dance very well, and about very specific kinds of dancing. It has to look a certain way. There is not much leeway for a choreographer to be creative and put her personal style on the piece.
Aside from Rose, Louise, June, and Herbie all the many other roles are brief cameos. The Mac-Haydn trots out some of their pros for brief golden moments. Michael Shiles is hilarious in his single silent scene as Mr. Goldstone. And Tiffany Thornton gets to show her comedy chops as a hard-boiled producer’s secretary after two weeks of playing the sugary sweet Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance. Sari Ganulin is amusing as a sad sack wanna be chorus girl. As if children and strippers and dancing cows weren’t enough, two live animals appear in the show. An adorable puppy named Princess Bishop portrays Rose’s dog Chowsie with soulful eyes and a rapidly flicking tail. And an uncredited lamb manages not to upstage Kelly Shook in her solo spot Little Lamb.
I enjoyed the vaudeville house look and little footlights created by set designer Chris Eicher and lighting designer Andrew Gmoser. Gmoser had his hands full with a lot of rapid and dramatic lighting changes, especially during Halenda’s grand finale Rose’s Turn.
There were some glitches in the performance I attended, which was the second time the cast had performed this show before an audience. A few lines were stepped on and I believe (I may be mistaken) that Kelly Shook experienced a reverse “wardrobe malfunction” when her dress failed to come all the way off during the penultimate strip tease number. These things happen, especially when you are keeping up the hectic production schedule the folks at the Mac-Haydn attempt each summer.
Gypsy runs through July 4 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours with one intermission. Despite the strip tease numbers at the end there is no nudity and children over eight can enjoy the show. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004