Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Gypsy at the Goodspeed: The Vaudeville Spirit

Talia Suskauer and Laura Sky Herman in Gypsy. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know that Jenn Thompson, the director of the Goodspeed Opera House’s production of Gypsy, has a steady hand on the wheel right from the opening scene. It’s an audition for child acts in a dilapidated Seattle theatre in the grim last years of vaudeville, when the talkies dealt it a long, painful death that coincided with the Depression. The stage is crowded with kids in a variety of garish get-ups and their mothers until Uncle Jocko (Edward Juvier), the ulcerated, borderline creepy, far-from-unbiased comic hosting the variety show, banishes the latter. Then Rose (Judy McLane), who is promoting her little girl, Baby June (Emily Jewel Hoder), bulls her way down the aisle; the rules don’t apply to her. June has a head full of blonde curls and an affected squeal; she’s a nightmarish proto-Shirley Temple, flanked by her awkward older sister Louise (Cameron Blake Miller). Thompson’s staging picks up the show-biz chaos, its comedy and preposterousness and desperation, which finds its most feverish embodiment in Rose, the quintessential stage mother – perhaps the greatest and most original creation in the history of musical theatre.

Gypsy, which Arthur Laurents shaped from the memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, is set mostly in vaudeville and finally in burlesque, where Louise (played as a young woman by Talia Suskauer) – whom Rose largely ignores until June (Laura Sky Herman) finally runs off, and then simply shifts her ambitions onto – winds up by accident and becomes an unexpected star. And the show’s spirit is firmly vaudevillian, like many of the stage and movie musicals I love the most: Kiss Me, Kate, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Funny Girl, Babes in Arms, On Your Toes, 42nd Street, Pal Joey, Gold Diggers of 1933 and later Chicago, The Drowsy Chaperone, Bob Fosse’s movie of Cabaret and this Broadway season’s delectable Some Like It Hot. They’re all, in whole or in part, backstage musicals, and the best parts of them are hard-boiled. Gypsy has a sensational book; it and Cabaret are the two items on this glorious list that I would say are not just superb musicals but dramatic masterpieces. Gypsy, with its wonderful Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score, is several things at once – a gritty, cynical theatrical tale that that captures a seldom-visited corner of show business; a coming-of-age story about an untalented ugly duckling who discovers both her beauty and her talent; and (mostly) a dissection of the stage mother type.

Rose has boundless drive and bottomless persistence; irrepressible, relentlessly upbeat, she charms everyone into giving her what she wants in the name of her kids. Herbie (Philip Hernandez), whom she runs into at an audition, falls for her and becomes the agent for their cobbled-together act. The act is just like Rose – it’s so insistent that it whips you into submission. McLane, who gives an excellent performance, is especially good at getting Rose’s charm, which is really a fa├žade for bullying, just as her maternal self-sacrificing is a mask behind which lurks a narcissism so profound that’s finally horrifying. The mask comes off just before intermission, when she learns that June has eloped with one of the boys in the act, the hoofer Tulsa (the likable Michael Starr, who shines in his solo, “All I Need Is the Girl”), and she decides to rebuild the act around Louise. She sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” shoving confused, frightened Louise around the stage like an outsize rag doll while Herbie stands, looking appalled. The only musical with a first-act curtain as powerful and unsettling as this one is Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye’s oldest daughter’s wedding becomes the scene of a pogrom.

Suskauer breaks out in the unlikeliest of songs, “Little Lamb,” where Thompson and the musical director, Adam Souza, showcase her warm, emotional contralto. Though I’ve seen half a dozen other versions of Gypsy, several of them memorable, I’ve never taken much notice of this ballad. Suskauer makes it count – especially as a comment on Rose’s efforts to pretend that her daughters and the members of their little troupe are still little children. As June, Herman uses the various permutations of her character’s stage number, “Let Me Entertain You,” to convey her resentment of the un-grown part she can’t shake: she sends it up, but there’s a touch of poison in the parody. One of the (many) highlights of the production is Suskauer and Herman’s duet, “If Momma Got Married.”

Hernandez gives a strong performance, and he and McLane establish a rapport in their first duet, “Small World.” McLane is smart enough to make Rose sexy; you can see why Herbie is drawn to her the first time he sees her. (He admits that he grilled her daughters about her while they were waiting for their audition.) In their second number, “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” she overpowers his objections to her habit of putting him off every time he tries to get her to marry him; his patience is running thin, but when she pulls him up off his chair to dance with her, he can’t say no. It’s a lovely song, but you can see how skillfully she wears down his resistance – everybody’s resistance. They’re in a Chinese restaurant; it’s the only kind of food she ever eats or feeds the (unpaid) young people in the act, presumably because it’s cheap. At one point Herbie jokes that it’s never occurred to her there might be someone in the world who doesn’t like Chinese food. The joke has a serious side: it reflects the way Rose always works, bowling everyone over, imposing her will. (My only quibble about Hernandez’s performance is that it would be wiser if he underplayed the scene where Herbie finally walks out on Rose.)

I liked everyone in the cast, including Geoffrey Wade as Rose’s unenthusiastic father (Wade pops up again in three walk-on parts) and David Cochise Williams, Ben Sears and Gabe Amato, who, along with Starr, contribute some fine dancing as June’s back-up. The effervescent choreography is by Patricia Wilcox. Alexander Dodge’s set is a cyclorama filled with period ads, with a semi-circle at its center, framed like a mini-proscenium stage, on which individual vaudeville scenes are projected. It’s effective and evocative, as is Paul Miller’s lighting design. Eduardo Sicangco has done yeoman service with the Depression-era costumes, which are always lively and attractive and become suitably elegant once Louise transitions into Gypsy Rose Lee.

Famously, Gypsy has a double climax, Louise’s strip, which we see develop over time, and “Rose’s Turn.” Suskauer and McLane pull them off; they provide an admirable finish for an admirable production.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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