GYPSY (Arden): A self-aware musical

Photo by Mark Garvin.

Photo by Mark Garvin.

GYPSY is a self-aware musical, a play about show businesses that pokes fun at itself.  Jule Styne’s shmaltzy compositions are reminiscent of early showtunes, while Steven Sondheim’s lyrics and Arthur Laurent’s story cast them in a different light: one that throws the shadows behind show business’s glamorous exterior into sharp relief. The Arden’s production brings the homage, but can’t find the darkness. But, hey! It’s musical theater!

Mary Martello stars as Rose, the manic stage mother of June and Louise.  She lives and breathes vaudeville, from her banter to her saunter. The seasoned Martello slides comfortably into the song and dance numbers, a slight rasp in her powerful voice giving the character a note of desperation. Rose’s violent mood swings seem harder to capture and are reduced to clownish facial expressions: eyes going wide for madness, chin in and down for sadness. Her comedic timing falls somewhere in between Bette Midler’s snappy fast talk and Ethel Merman’s beat-you-over-the-head styles. She does bring heart to the performance though, which puts the audience in a tough spot. We are asked to feel sympathy for a woman who subverted child labor laws to fulfill her own dreams, and who allegedly murdered three people (the murders didn’t make it into the musical).

Martello is backed by the fabulous Caroline Dooner as Louise/Gypsy, who’s mousy appearance belies her big voice. Her transition from awkward teen to burlesque vixen is believably gradual, from her sweet reminiscing in “Little Lamb” to the clever, sassy revamp of “Let Me Entertain You” near the end.

The strippers are the crowd favorites, with Joilet F. Harris as Mazeppa, the trumpet player stripper whose brassy voice matches her brazen trumpet blasts. Monica Horan is the funniest person in the show. She spouts well timed one-liners as a high powered secretary, and accentuates the faded beauty of burlesque dancer Tessie Tura with a saggy bra and constant slouch.

What impressed me most about this particular production was the number of talented performers under the age of 12. Alexa Hunt as Baby June is as saccharine as they come, and knows it. She flips and high kicks through the show with boundless energy. Veronica Nardo is perfect as the slightly off tempo tomboy Baby Louise. Ethan Jih-Cook, Avery Hannon, and Abigail Brown are all fantastic dancers and actors. The Arden’s commitment to youth in theater has obviously paid off.

This production is a labor of love for the theater. The set (by James Kronzer) is a proscenium. The costumes (Richard St. Clair) are beautiful and endless, with some costume changes happening in seconds. The band is fantastic and lighting designer Thom Weaver gives us a special treat in the end. The whole thing gives a sense of what is possible with musical theater.

[Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia] May 18-June 25, 2017; ardentheatre.org

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