Ask any true Broadway aficionado to name the greatest musicals ever written and it’s a sure bet that Gypsy: A Broadway Fable (best known simply as Gypsy) will top many if not most lists. Though overshadowed in its original Broadway run by The Sound Of Music and Fiorello, which tied for the 1960 Best Musical Tony, Gypsy has stood the test of time with four Broadway revivals (including two in the 2000s alone), even more cast recordings, and a list of hit songs that seems to go on forever.
Despite this phenomenal success, Gypsy has been largely absent from our L.A. theater scene for at least the last decade, making West Coast Ensemble’s 99-seat revival big news indeed, particularly since the “stripped-down” production continues the WCE tradition of taking big stage musicals and giving them intimacy and pizzazz in equal measure.
Based on the book Gypsy: A Memoir by legendary striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy introduces us to the stage mother to end all stage mothers, the formidable Mama Rose, brought to life in the Broadway original by the one-and-only Ethel Merman in what most consider to be her greatest performance. (In what goes down as one of the biggest upsets [i.e. mistakes] in Tony Award History, Merman lost the Best Actress statuette to Mary Martin for The Sound Of Music.)
If ever there was a Broadway show blessed by the musical theater gods, Gypsy was (and is) that show, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. “Small World,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” and “Let Me Entertain You” are just four of the Styne-Sondheim creations to become song standards. As for the show’s original director-choreographer, they don’t come more legendary than Jerome Robbins.
Helming Gypsy: Stripped (as the West Coast Ensemble production has been nicknamed) is its Co-Artistic Director Richard Israel, and anyone who has seen the director’s previous work knows that the show could not be in better hands. (Israel’s direction of Big River, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, High Spirits, and Meet Me In St. Louis won him a Director Of The Year Scenie last September for the second year in a row.) Israel understands that Gypsy is at heart a mother-daughter story, and one that translates perfectly to the intimate stage even without the Broadway razzmatazz.
Still, there can be no Gypsy without a leading lady able to hold her own against those who’ve followed La Merman on stage or screen, a list of superstars which includes Betty Buckley, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Rosalind Russell. Fortunately, West Coast Ensemble has an ace up its sleeve in Jan Sheldrick, whose unforgettable work in WCE’s Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins won her a Scenie for Best Performance By A Featured Actress. Sheldrick turns out to be not only a brilliant dramatic actress but a terrific musical theater performer as well, a fact attested to by a résumé which includes Company, Cabaret, Merrily We Roll Along, A New Brain, and Sunday In The Park With George. Though she may not have Ethel’s or Patti’s power pipes, Sheldrick more than holds her own vocally, even without the aid of amplification, and as a dramatic actress-comedienne she is out-and-out brilliant. Not only that but she’s also got something not every Mama Rose before her has had—likeability. No matter how manipulative and controlling her Mama Rose can be, Sheldrick makes it impossible to hate her, and if the most recent revival darkened the show’s original ending, here, with Sheldrick in the role, the more upbeat finale makes perfect, heartwarming sense. As for those who wonder how Sheldrick fares with “Rose’s Turn,” Mama Rose’s eleventh hour showstopper-to-end-all-showstoppers, suffice it to say that the actress deserves every decibel of the applause she receives.
Every Mama Rose must have her Gypsy, and Sheldrick’s is Stephanie Wall, making a memorable transition from mousy wallflower Rose Louise Hovick to stellar headliner Gypsy Rose Lee in a performance that matches her excellent work in The Light In The Piazza a few years back. Not only does Wall “sing out Louise” with the best of them, she has the same kind of quirky comedic gifts that made Gypsy Rose Lee truly in a class by herself.
Michael Matthys too provides splendid support to Sheldrick’s Rose as Herbie, her longtime, long-suffering boyfriend, whether joining in on the jaunty “Together Wherever We Go” or revealing Herbie’s hurt and betrayal in one of Gypsy’s most powerful dramatic scenes. That Matthys and Sheldrick have great chemistry together is an added bonus.
Four other roles go beyond cameo status, and each is marvelously played. Lithe-limbed and lanky, L.A. newcomer Eric Allen Smith is everything you want a Tulsa to be, i.e. a classic song and dance man in the Gene Kelly mode. Sara J. Stuckey, on a roll with her performances this year in Caught and The Odd Couple, makes it three winners in a row as stripper Tessie Tura (The Texas Twirler), and not only does Stuckey steal every scene she’s in, she proves herself a twirler extraordinaire in the show’s only PG-13 moment. Kelly Jean Clair is a hoot as brassy stripper Mazeppa as is Jessica Schatz as her electric co-ecdysiast Electra, and when Stuckey, Clair, and Schatz join forces in the Act Two showstopper “You Gotta Get A Gimmick,” there won’t be a straight face in the house.
Gypsy’s Broadway premiere featured a cast of forty-four, and even its most recent revival filled the stage with a grand total of thirty-nine. Gypsy: Stripped cuts that number down to twenty-three, still a big cast for a 99-seat-plan production, but one which requires (or allows as the case may be) many cast members to play double, triple, or even quadruple roles, among them esteemed character actors Larry Lederman and Tony Pandolfo, bringing decades of experience and stage presence to four roles each. Teen and 20something cast members L.J. Benet, Quintan Craig, Amy Lawrence, Dan Pacheco, Zach Salsa, Katie Scarlett, Kailey Swanson, and Ann Villella show off their triple-threat talents, with a special nod to Swanson for her delightful take on Dainty June. Some very talented children complete the ensemble, including Kaleigh Ryan and Caitlin Williams, standouts as Baby June and Baby Louise, as well as Glory Curda, Major Curda, Saylor Curda, and Petey Yarosh.
Aiding director Israel in insuring that stripped doesn’t mean diminished are choreographer John Todd, whose bouncy dance steps bring vaudeville and burlesque to 21st Century life; Stephen Gifford, whose versatile set design reminds us that Gypsy is the story of lives lived almost entirely inside one theater or another; Lisa D. Katz, who lights each scene to perfection, and who shares snaps with Israel and Todd for a terrific flash-forward strobe-and-dance sequence; Zale Morris, who has designed dozens upon dozens of great costumes; and Rebecca Kessin, whose sound design guarantees that instrumental accompaniment doesn’t overpower vocal performances. As for said instrumental accompaniment, audience members may be surprised to learn that it’s a one-woman show, with musical director Johanna Kent tickling the ivories to orchestral tracks recorded specifically for this production. Is a bigger sound missed? Truthfully yes, especially in the Gypsy Overture, considered by many the best in Broadway history. Still, a smaller sound allows for unmiked voices, and hearing Gypsy performed without vocal amplification is a rare treat.
Suzanne Doss is assistant director, Nicholas Acciani stage manager, and Brook Carlson producer for West Coast Ensemble.
Gypsy at West Coast Ensemble should prove manna from heaven for musical theater lovers in the mood for something other than yet another revival of Little Shop, Funny Forum, Pippin, or Cabaret (not that there’s anything wrong with any of them, but enough is enough … please). That Gypsy just happens to be one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all times (and that even “stripped,” it’s still one hell of a show) makes this a production that no true musical theater buff will want to miss.
West Coast Ensemble, The Theatre of Arts Arena Stage, 1625 N. Las Palmas, Hollywood.www.westcoastensemble.org
May 21, 2011
Photo: Carla Barnett