San Diego Theater Review: GYPSY (Cygnet Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on July 27, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

A SCALED-DOWN GYPSY
NONETHELESS GOES OFF THE SCALE

Gypsy, the musical theater biography of striptease performer Gypsy Rose Lee, is really about Gypsy’s mother, Mama Rose, immortalized by Ethel Merman in the original 1959 production. Not just a chronicle of the superstar ecdysiast’s checkered childhood, Gypsy is a celebration of the addictive insanity of show business. Stephen Sondheim’s crackling lyrics give Jule Styne’s tunes whiplash wit and psychological heft, and Arthur Laurents’ surefire book remains one of the best in musical theater history. It’s no wonder that the show has had four major revivals on Broadway.

Catalina Zelles, Josh Bradford, Linda Libby, Claire Schepper, Hourie Klijian in GYPSY. Photo by Ken Jacques.

Cygnet Theater’s awesomely faithful version, which opened last weekend, proves that with the right direction, casting and spirit, Gypsy works astoundingly well in a smaller space, too (and at much more affordable prices). The ensemble here has been reduced for the Old Town stage, and Styne’s sumptuous orchestrations are cut more than 75% for an unseen sextet, but the all-important backdrops and bare-stage settings remain. All told, the big numbers sound less like Broadway but they profoundly underscore the show’s financially barebones vaudeville context.

Allison Spratt Pearce in GYPSY. Photo by Ken Jacques.Left intact and fully respected, Laurents’ all-American plot depicts a tiger mother from Seattle whose own showbiz aspirations have been dangerously repressed. Embarked on a constant tear, Mama Rose will sacrifice everything—her love life, diet, sleep, and sometimes sanity—for the big-time futures of daughters June and Louise (later Gypsy). The monomaniacal matriarch’s tough love both repels and attracts those around her.

It’s a slice of showbiz to conjure up drafty auditions, unheated dressing room, crowded boarding houses, stolen cutlery, and a traveling menagerie from Seattle to Wichita and across the yawning Depression. The detritus that Rose leaves behind defines theater as few shows can. Gypsy chronicles this rags-to-G-strings history with moxie and savvy in superlative songs (“Small World,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “If Momma Was Married”) that collectively earn the running anthem, “Let Me Entertain You.”

(front) Catalina Zelles, (rear) Josh Bradford, Claire Schepper, Giovanni Cozic, Hourie Klijian in GYPSY. Photo by Ken Jacques.

As Momma Rose, Linda Libby marinates her show-stoppers (“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses”) in a character as sharp as hunger; she brings little glamour and a lot of world-wise, worn-out wariness to the role. She has friction to spare and next to no eagerness to please. On the opening weekend matinee, she seemed somewhat drained and vocally shaky but what a trooper..! All along she was saving it up for the killer finale “Rose’s Turn,” a nervous breakdown set to notes.

Linda Libby, Manny Fernandes, and Allison Spratt Pearce in GYPSY. Photo by Ken Jacques.

Sean Murray’s generous, zesty, 180-minute staging surrounds Libby with tailor-made triumphs: Manny Fernandes is salt-of-the earth solid as Rose’s patient and highly tested eternal fiancé Herbie; Katie Whalley Banville smolders well as temperamental June (her first appearance dancing and singing made me think more of Bette Davis’s Baby Jane than a grownup Baby June!); and Allison Spratt Pearce deftly develops Louise from a diffident and intimidated young woman into the self-confident stripper who blossoms into Gypsy Rose Lee, a personality ahead of her time. Also impressive are the child entertainers Gabriella Dimmick and Claire Scheper as Babies June and Louise).

Manny Fernandes, Linda Libby, David Kirk Grant, Danny Hansen, Max Cadillac, Hanz Enyeart, Dallas Perry, Katie Whalley Banville in GYPSY. Photo by Ken Jacques.

Most of the production numbers replicate the tacky, zero-talent choreography of the second rate vaudeville houses of the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Choreographer David Brannen doesn’t stint on the silliness of those numbers, but when he gets a chance to choreograph some real dancing, he comes up big, notably with Danny Hansen’s terrific tap dancing turn in “All I Need Is the Girl.” The jiggly bump-and-grind movement is perfect in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” a number which ranks, along with the other 11 o’clock number “Rose’s Turn,” as the sure-fire musical moment of the evening: Three burlesque strippers demonstrate to the wide-eyed Louise how a gal needs a gimmick to set herself apart in the competitive world of burlesque. Huge wolf whistles to Marlene Montes (Mazeppa), Kendra Truett (Electra), and Marci Anne Wuebben (Tessie Tura) for capturing the hilarity of the number with commendable all-out vulgarity.

Allison Spratt Pearce and Linda Libby in GYPSY. Photo by Ken Jacques.

The strong design team consists of Sean Fanning (sets), Chris Rynne (lighting), Dylan Nielsen (sound), and especially Jeanne Reith, whose superb costume design goes from schlocky homemade dance outfits to stunning burlesque getups. Terry O’Donnell supplies the tight music direction and keyboard playing. This may be a smaller Gypsy, but the payoff is big.

Linda Libby in GYPSY. Photo by Ken Jacques.

photos by Ken Jacques

Gypsy
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on , 2016
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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