Director Terrence J. Nolen nearly ruins the Arden’s new production of GYPSY before it even begins.
Rather than let the legendarily robust overture—one of the great compositions in the musical theater repertory—unspool from the hands of the talented on-stage orchestra (conducted by Ryan Touhey) and set the tone for the evening, Nolan has added a staged prologue that acts as a mini-precis. The company, led by local legend Mary Martello as Mama Rose, act out an overdramatized sketch of the plot over the course of five minutes. It feels like the curtain call gags that are common in British farces—except it’s not funny (at least not intentionally) and the show hasn’t even started yet. Having Rose onstage from the beginning diffuses the wonderful thrill of her entrance from the audience during “May We Entertain You?,” an entrance that not only feels exciting but tells you so much about who this character is. It sets a worrisome tone for the rest of the night.
Although not a complete disaster, Nolen’s production is indicative of the many problematic trends that pervade modern stagings of classic musical. Subtext is in; subtlety is out. The most frequent victim of unnecessary directorial insertions is the title character, the shy and neglected daughter cum stripper extraordinaire, otherwise played with grace and vocal brilliance with Caroline Dooner. When you have a performer this lovely in a central role, there is no need to take a sledgehammer to moments that require a soft hand. So why does Nolen have the teenaged Louise sing the mournful lament “Little Lamb,” an ode to loneliness and invisibility, as a duet with her younger self (played by Veronica Nardo)? Likewise, why does Baby Louise return to shadow her adult counterpart as she’s about to execute her first strip? The pile-on suggests a director taking one halfway-clever idea and forcing it all over a production.
Mama Rose is a complicated character, but she’s not Mother Courage. Not that you would know from seeing this production. (The Brechtian title cards don’t exactly help in this regard). The character is ruthless, driven, and frequently selfish, but her actions are driven by an undercurrent of love for her children. Thank god for Martello, who never lets the audience forget this, even as Nolen’s concept tries in vain to turn Rose into a heartless gorgon. Martello infuses her Rose with an irascible spirit and a deep well of love for the people in her life, including her long-suffering companion Herbie (Anthony Heald, in a smartly restrained performance) and her ungrateful favored child, June (the superb Rachel Camp). Without this emotional connection, it is impossible to understand not only why Rose acts as she does, but also why the potential loss of her children would be such a devastating blow. Martello never lets us forget it.
And she can still sing the hell out of this difficult score, which was written for Ethel Merman and has been handled over the years by vocal powerhouses like Patti LuPone and Bette Midler. Martello possesses a wellspring of that most valuable artistic element—taste. In a role like Mama Rose, this goes a long way. Although Richard St. Clair’s well-made costumes and a flattering wig knock a decade or two off Martello’s foundation, she is still sixty-five, and perhaps the voice is not as fresh as it was twenty years ago, Martello compensates with smart musical choices. The middle voice is still the glory of her supple mezzo soprano, and she spends a lot of time in that range, surprisingly even during the show-stopping “Rose’s Turn.” She occasionally struggled with lines at the performance I attended, but corrected herself like a pro.
Is this the GYPSY Philadelphia has been waiting for? I’m afraid not. But it features the Mama Rose of a lifetime. Take my advice: Don’t miss Mary’s turn.
[Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia] May 18-June 25, 2017; ardentheatre.org