Gypsy opened a strong run at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden on Friday night, and it proves that even when a good production of the show might be a bit rough around the edges, the show itself gleams and provides a stunner of a showcase for talented performers. There’s a reason this 1959 musical is one of the best musical theater pieces ever written. (I personally consider Gypsy, 4nd Street, and A Chorus Line the all-time three best musicals).
Based very loosly on stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, the show is about making it in show business no matter what the personal cost. In this case, it’s Mama Rose who loses her daughters, potential fourth husband, and a score of child actors who eventually leave as their traveling vaudeville act grows stale, vaudeville itself is dying, and the ragtag remainder find themselves in a house of burlesque where second-banana daughter Louise reads lines and eventually steps in to strip becoming an overnight sensation and superstar. Louise later went on to star in several movies (none of them successful) and appear in plays, musicals, and television. That part of the story is entirely omitted here, because this is mostly Mama’s story – Rose is the stage mother of all stage mothers. Gypsy was written by Arthur Laurents (who also did the original direction and choreography), Music was written by Jule Styne, and Lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim.
There is no doubt what you are getting into from the opening 4 notes of the overture. Therein lies my first concern – but I will get back to that.
Directed and choreographed by Tom Vazzana, the performances here are superb — AEA actors Andrea Canny as Rose (magnificent) and Andrea Stack as Louise (stunning) lead a very strong ensemble cast, although this is probably one of the smallest casts of this production I have seen (and I’ve seen all of the Broadway productions since 1974 and scores of regional productions and the recent West End production). That leaves the Garden Theatre with a dilemma — doubling actors and actresses as teenage kids is tricky when your adult actors are pushing 30 or older. Neither the teen male cast newsboys nor the teen girls cast toreadorables are young enough. I get it, I know. But it doesn’t work. Still, there is talent to spare. Dancer Arcadian Broad turns in a spectacular performance as Tulsa and “All I Need is the Girl” sparkles in a way other numbers don’t.
I wanted to love this production, Instead, I liked it enough, but I wasn’t wowed.
That orchestra — well, Garden Theatre uses tracked music so nothing here feels authentic. If ever a show calls out for a live orchestra, it’s Gypsy. In fact, traditionally, the orchestra interacts with the performers in the second act. There are also cuts made to the score and to the show itself. Rose doesn’t gather the boys in the first act, they just appear at their first gig — that loses the entire running gag of where they have been assembled from (Tulsa, Yonkers, LA)…and there are cuts in some songs. I mean, I know, the show is long – but cutting ten minutes of it doesn’t make any difference, especially when these songs are so well known.
In particular dance sequences are cut – the newboys tap number never takes place, and other dance numbers are shortened and simplified. That’s great when you don’t have good dancers — but this cast has very good dancers. The very standard strobe-light kids turning into teens dance section is also cut.
For a musical that takes on a decidedly adult edge in the second act (there is a reason the kids onstage disappear after the first act) this is a very family friendly production, Hilarious strippers Tessie Tura (Cathy Merkel-Roddy), Mazeppa (Wendy Starkand), and Electra (Nathalia Duque) show very little skin, and later the ensemble strippers are entirely cut. The Strip sequence itself is very toned down. Yeah, sure, it conveys the feeling of the action, but it isn’t what’s written. You never get the sense that Gypsy has actually become a stripper instead of just a good actress. The sequence has no seediness. And that is an audience loss.
During Stack’s lovely “Little Lamb” the actors on stage left move so much that it pulls focus through the entire sequence. Set changes at times take too long, especially when not much is happening but a group of actors going off and another group already sitting behind the curtain waiting for it to open. Its little things like that that add up to a less than perfect Gypsy.
The set itself is lovely, designed by Joe Klug (who does wonders on this show without a fly system) as is the lighting by Alyx Jacobs. Sound designer Jack Audet does a remarkbale job – you can hear and understand every single word. That actually IS the benefit of using an orchestra track – you can turn it up and down as necessary.
That seems like a lot of criticism, and to a degree it is — Gypsy is a show that I know so intimately that I am well aware of the cuts and changes made here, Most audience members will not be aware of this. I actually had a very good time at this production, and you will too. It’s a solid professional production, but be aware – it is shortened and toned down. And you might be able to overlook the 30 year old teenagers, but I had a hard time doing so.
Gypsy continues at the Garden Theatre through September 16th. 160 West Plant Street, Winter Garden. Tickets: 407-877-4736 or gardentheatre.org
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