By Karen Isaacs
Gypsy is a classic musical that is not easy to pull off. It requires a terrific actress for Mama Rose, strong supporting performers, and an ensemble. It has multiple sets and covers many years. It’s also one of the shows that recently has been done multiple times in Connecticut. Earlier this summer Tony winner Karen Ziemba played Mama Rose at Sharon Playhouse.
A director attempting to produce this show at a small theater with a limited budget is
really creating some barriers to success. But just as director Kevin Connors did last fall with Evita, he overcomes the hurdles as though they weren’t there. This is overall a terrific production.
Seeing it at the intimate MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) space in Norwalk where it runs through Sept. 25 lends an extra dimension to the show.
Connors has a small cast to work with but he has selected them carefully. He uses just four children in the show; six women play all the roles besides Mama Rose and Gypsy, and three men play everyone except Herbie. Yet you never feel like show needs more performers.
In case you don’t recall the story, it based very loosely on the early years of the famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee whose stage door mother was determined in the 1920s to get Gypsy and her younger sister (who became the actress/director/playwright June Havoc) onto the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit. The act that Mama devises stars “Baby June” and is weak to say the least. They stumble along because Mama does not give up and is sure she can make Baby June a star. Along the way, Herbie, a former agent, becomes enamored of Mama and serves as their agent.
The stage mother to end all stage mothers, Mama propels through sheer nerve, chutzpa and blindness the act to some limited success, but at a high price. As June hits the teenage years, she runs away to forge her own career. Mama then turns her effort to Louise (Gypsy) who has both less talent and less desire to perform. Plus, vaudeville is dying. Despite refurbishing the act – replacing young boys with young girls – Mama, Louise and Herbie struggle on until they are inadvertently booked into a burlesque house. When Mama encourages Louise to go on for the missing star stripper, Herbie leaves in disgust. Soon Gypsy (as she is now called) is a huge success and has cut the strings to Mama who wonders why she is always left alone at the end.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show is chocked full of terrific songs: from show biz anthems like “Everything’s Coming up Roses” to the tender “Little Lamb” and the terrific “All I Need Is the Girl,” “Some People,” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.” Of course, two highlights are “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” sung by three burlesque strippers and Mama’s ending soliloquy “Rose’s Turn.”
Kristi Carnahan is not a household name nor well known among Broadway aficionados. It was a wonderful surprise to see how she had both the acting and singing chops to bring this character life. While her Rose is totally oblivious to the wants and needs of her daughters, she is also blind to the true motivation behind her drive. She creates a Rose that emphasized the sadness and feelings of loss and disappointment within her. Kate Simone also brings out the pathos in Louise who really would prefer a live surrounded by a
“normal” family and lots of animals. More than in most productions, you see her disappointment when it is clear that Tulsa (the young dancer in the act) is in love with June. Yet she pulls off the transformation to star stripper with panache. Paul Binotto’s Herbie also emphasizes the longing of the character and also his awareness and anger at his own weakness.
Among the other cast members, Joe Grandy gives us a terrific Tulsa, and Jeri Kansas, Marca Leigh and Jodi Stevens are fine as the three strippers with gimmicks.
Becky Timms did a fine job with the choreography and Thomas Martin Conroy did the same with the musical direction. The four piece ensemble worked well and having
the Conroy at the piano stage was appropriate for the settings. The only disconcerting note was the very opening — the few bars from the seccond keyboard sounded like a full orchestra with violins which made me think that it was recorded. It wasn’t but the transition to the smaller and more real sounding combo was off-putting.
The set by Carl Tallent, costumes by Diane Vanderkroef and wigs by Peggi De La Cruz added to this production.
If you have never seen Gypsy or haven’t seen it in a while, please go see this production. It is fine.
Gypsy is at MTC, 509 Westport Ave., Norwalk through Sept. 25th. For tickets call 203-454-3883 or musictheatreofct.com.