Principal performers doing pro-level work highlight One More Productions’ revival of the Broadway classic Gypsy, and despite instances of age-inappropriate casting that make it seem at times more High School Musical than Professional Production, the Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim classic ends up a crowd-pleaser.
The source material couldn’t be stronger, the 1959 multiple Tony nominee remaining to this day just about as perfect a musical as can be, no matter that it was bested in the Best Musical category that year by a tie between The Sound Of Music and the long forgotten (and entirely forgettable) Fiorello.
Musicals simply don’t get any better than Gypsy, nor lead roles any more powerhouse than Mama Rose, nor book, music, and lyrics any more memorable than those written by Laurents, Styne and Sondheim.
Based on the book Gypsy: A Memoir by legendary striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy introduces us to the formidable Mama Rose Hovick, the stage mother to end all stage mothers, 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.)
Orange County theater vet Beth Hansen steps into Merman’s shoes (and those of Betty Buckley, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Rosalind Russell) as the woman who gave birth to (and propelled the careers of) movie actress June Havok and stripper extraordinaire Gypsy Rose Lee from their vaudeville debuts to silver screen and burlesque stage fame.
As Mama Rose pursues stardom for her daughters (and reflected glory for herself), Gypsy treats its audience to one Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim hit after another, including the now classic “Small World,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” and “Let Me Entertain You.”
Snippets of all of the above are introduced in what many consider the finest overture in Broadway history, performed upstage at Garden Grove’s GEM Theatre by a live six-piece orchestra before a shouted “Sing out, Louise!” from amidst the audience introduces us to Mama Rose, pretty much the only time our leading lady will be anywhere but center-stage.
And it’s quite a Mama Rose catching fire at the GEM, Hansen proving the proverbial force of nature as the most manipulative, controlling “Stage Mother From Hell“ ever to bedevil her progeny. Not only does Hansen sing “Some People,” “Small World,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” with power and pizzazz, she lets us see the vulnerability beneath Mama Rose’s hard-as-steel exterior, and when it’s just Mama up there demanding at long last “Rose’s Turn,” Hansen earns every one of the audience’s cheers.
In her own quieter, more subtle way, Nicole Cassesso gives Hansen a run for her money as Louise, transitioning quite stunningly from mousy wallflower Rose Louise Hovick to glamorous, self-assured headliner Gypsy Rose Lee.
Glenn Koppel plays Rose’s longtime, long-suffering boyfriend Herbie with plenty of punch, whether joining in on the jaunty “Together Wherever We Go” or later revealing Herbie’s hurt and betrayal at Mama Rose’s Louise-obsessed hands.
Cal State Fullerton theater grad Tad Fujioka sparkles (and shows off some smooth pipes and nifty footwork) as Tulsa, the adorable hoofer who steals Louise’s heart in their song-and-dance “All I Need Is The Girl.” As for Elyssa Alexander, the CSUF Musical Theater BFA Class Of 2016 Ball-Of-Fire takes the “nothing” role of teenaged Dainty June and gives her a quirky comedic spin worthy of a star.
Last but not least among the cast of principal players are the tempestuous trio of Carmen Tunis, Margie Ikerd, and a particularly delicious Fiona Wynder as Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie Tura, the seasoned strippers whose Act Two showstopper “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” does indeed stop the show at the GEM.
Child actresses Sophia Scarsi and Shayna Gayer are spunky young charmers as Baby June and Little Louise.
As for the remaining players, though there are a few seasoned adult performers in their midst, aside from Dainty June’s Farmboys (who are supposed to be teenagers), most of the remaining players are the very least several years—and in some cases quite a few decades—too young for the roles they are playing. (A boyish twelfth-grader and a college student with hair sprayed gray may convince an audience they’re seen-it-all burlesque theater managers in a school production of Gypsy, but not on a professional stage, and these are just two of the most obvious examples.)
Still, Gypsy’s ensemble—Daniel Berlin (Jocko, Press Agent), Brandi Birdsong (Gail), Keresey Dillon (Showgirl), Lexi Cross (Showgirl), John Gillies (Pop), Brandon Taylor Jones (Yonkers), Alexa Kushner (Marjorie May), Dayna Laramie (Delphina), Katherine Ljubić (Francis), Lauren Lowe (Agnes), Donovan Marcotte (Mr. Webber, Cigar), Zackary Martinez (L.A.), Tim Miller (Mr. Goldstone, Photographer), Megan Oviatt (Thelma), Olivia Rybus (Dolores), and Jack Whitaker (Georgie, Pastey)—deserve applause for their energetic commitment to the GEM Theatre production, and there are quite a few talented young performers among them.
Meriting generally high marks for his direction, Lorton clearly loves and understands Gypsy, and it shows. Still, Act Two does drag on, part of this due to the “The Strip” montage simply lasting much too long. On the other hand, the transition from Baby June And Her Newsboys to their teenaged incarnations is as magical as ever, and Lorton adds a clever, sexy gender reversal as Act One’s Showgirls turn into Act Two’s Showboys.
Shauna Bradford-Martinez choreographs vaudeville numbers with flair, with a special tip of the hat to Tulsa’s “All I Need Is The Girl.”
Alex Navarro’s period/showbiz costumes are the production’s standout design element, in particular the strippers’ delectable duds and Gypsy Rose Lee’s gorgeous gowns.
Sean Small’s scenic design has a community theater look to it, but his lighting is vibrant and varied. Randall Jones’ hair design mostly avoids the “stage wig” look (and it’s a clever conceit that Dainty June’s platinum blonde locks are indeed a wig, as we see when she’s at home just being June).
Lorton proves himself an able musical director in addition to his directorial contributions, and the onstage band sounds close-to-pro: Toni Helms on piano, Saul Reynoso on trumpet, Kevin Homma on reeds, Jeff Segal on drums, John Zavala on trombone, and Brian St. Hilaire on bass.
Fujioka is assistant director. Additional program credits go to master carpenters Stephen Ayers and Jason Kmetic and carpenter/scenic painter Joseph Luarte. Gypsy is produced by its star Cassesso for One More Productions.
That Gypsy works as well as it does on the GEM Theatre stage is tribute to its topnotch stars and main featured performers. It helps too that the material they’re bringing to life is as good as it gets. This alone makes a visit to the GEM worth a local audience’s patronage. Despite its High School Musical momentS, it’s clear that a lot of love has gone into bringing this Gypsy to life.
The GEM Theater, 12852 Main Street, Garden Grove.
September 4, 2014