Beck’s imbalanced ‘Gypsy’ entertains but does not enthrall
By Bob Abelman
Winner of multiple Tony Awards, Grammys and Drama Desk Awards for both the original 1959 Broadway production and its 1974, 1989, 2003 and 2008 revivals, Arthur Laurents’ “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is considered one of the standard bearers of the old-timey American musical.
The story, based loosely on the memoirs of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and set during the 1920s and 1930s, follows an overbearing mother and her two performer daughters from one run-down theater to another just as vaudeville was regressing into burlesque.
From this musical came such memorable tunes as “Let Me Entertain You” and the infamous Mama Rose – the poster child for billboard-sized show business mothers – which has served as a prominent showcase for leading ladies the likes of Ethel Merman in the original production and Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone in subsequent revivals.
Natalie Blalock stars as Mama Rose in the Beck Center for the Arts’ entertaining but less-than-enthralling production.
She certainly has the essential belt and brass down pat, best displayed in the truly show-stopping “Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn.” And she lives up to her character’s introduction as a “woman always in the middle of a sentence.”
But missing from Blalock’s portrayal is a necessary dimensionality – an undercurrent of vulnerability, a flash of warmth or a touch of charm – to complement Rose’s single-minded steamrolling tendencies and make palatable to modern sensibilities the pattern of child abuse that plays out throughout this musical. It would also serve to offset the script’s dumbfounding stoicism about said abuse, which worked well for Merman in the 1950s but has been a bit cringe-worthy since Peters and LuPone.
A one-dimensional Rose has ramifications, turning her long-suffering business partner/admirer Herbie – played by an endearing and hard-working Allen O’Reilly – into little more than a doormat and their romantic “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” into just a catchy show tune.
It also keeps June, Rose’s youngest daughter, from being more fully fleshed. While Calista Zajac and Gigi Hausman, as younger and older versions of June, show off their significant musical theater chops during “Let Me Entertain You” and “If Momma Was Married,” respectively, neither demonstrates the showbiz steel their character possesses and which eclipses – for a while, anyway – Rose’s own ambition.
Only Grace Thompson and Emmy Brett as younger and older versions of Louise – who will later become Gypsy Rose Lee – manage to shed the simple skin of their character to reveal something much richer.
Brett seems to rise above the show’s subtitle “A Musical Fable” by projecting a magnetism and sense of presence that adds personality to what could easily be an uncomplicated and less interesting portrait. She is less convincing once Louise becomes the seasoned and worldly stripper Gypsy, where Brett – only an incoming senior at Baldwin Wallace University – seems to be playing dress up even when dressing down on the burlesque stage.
Scattered among this production’s instances of unevenness are some standout moments that squarely hit their marks. Among them is a marvelous piece of song and dance turned in by Enrique Miguel as chorus boy Tulsa during “All I Need Is The Girl,” a hilarious turn by Leslie Andrews as the jaded secretary to a vaudeville producer, and the comedic performances of Andrews, Leah Smith and Tasha Brandt as strippers who help Louise figure out the art and craft of burlesque in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
The show’s sizable and soaring orchestra, under Larry Goodpaster’s musical direction and keyboard, helps remind audiences why Styne’s benchmark score has made five trips to Broadway and remains hummable.
Director Scott Spence firmly grounds this production in the musical fable motif by surrounding the stage with three gilded, receding, light-bulb embellished proscenium arches, under which Aaron Benson’s set pieces flow in and out with remarkable stealth. This approach guides Inda Blatch-Geib’s period-appropriate costuming and Martín Céspedes’ absolutely delightful and light-handed choreography.
All of this helps create Mama Rose’s insulated show-biz world, though it does not quite excuse Spence’s double casting of actors (Patrick Carroll, John Stuehr, Robert Pierce, Jack Warren, Nathan Hoty and Steven Huynh) in minor roles, which proves to be distracting.
As most old musicals do, this one creaks upon occasion. And while some creative choices are questionable in this production, the talent on stage is undeniable and brings all that is entertaining in “Gypsy” to the forefront. cv
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through Aug. 12
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 8, 2018.
Lead image: Natalie Blalock as Mama Rose. Photo / Andy Dudik