Fort Worth — It’s hard to do one of the biggest, brassiest of American musicals on a budget—and Stolen Shakespeare Guild only partly pulls it off with Gypsy. The intimate scale of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Sanders Theater does well for the show’s smaller scenes—the duet of “Small World,” the trio of “Together, Wherever We Go”—but audience imagination has to work overtime to fill out ensemble numbers that don’t “go big” when they should.
It’s a decent effort from SSG, but they’ve done better by other musicals, notably with Guys and Dolls and Monty Python’s Spamalot. Don’t go expecting the moon, and chances are you’ll find something to enjoy. The good stuff is still there, after all: Arthur Laurents’ gritty, gripping script; Jule Styne’s string of great show tunes; Stephen Sondheim’s knife-point sharp lyrics.
Inevitably, any Gypsy hangs on the performance of stage mom Rose. Jenny Tucker (seen as Reno Sweeney in SSG’s Anything Goes a few seasons back) isn’t a Rose in the big, bold brunette tradition of Ethel Merman and Tyne Daly. She’s closer in style to Bernadette Peters, whose “new” Rose was the biggest news of the 2003 Broadway revival. It’s a flirtier, more feminine take, less Mommy Monster and more the disappointed Star. Rose, who says she was “born too soon and started too late,” never got her chance on the stage. But she’s as determined as any Tiger Mom that June (Anna-Marie Boyd)—the blonde daughter who looks like her younger self—will make it for both of them. Lost in the shuffle is daughter Louise (Connie Marie Brown, Madge in SSG’s Picnic last summer) a quiet girl who’s never the focus of her mother’s laser-beam attention: in Act One, Rose’s eyes pass over Louise again and again, but she doesn’t really see her.
Tucker has a sexy, tired twinkle in the eye—Rose comes alive when there’s a man in the room—and it’s easy to understand why Herbie (Robert Banks), a gentle theatrical agent (is there such a beast?), falls for her. Their scenes together are the best of this show, full of warmth and little bits of business—as they’re dancing, Herbie brings their joined hands up and touches Rose’s nose with one playful finger. The songs help, of course: “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” are great numbers for lovers who’ve already seen a lot of life. Less effective are Rose’s two big numbers, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn.” Tucker’s voice, clear and rich and warm on the small scale, sounds a bit strained at louder registers, though she brings some emotional heft.
Banks is charming and ruefully self-aware as Herbie (Why won’t she marry the guy and go home?), who knows he’s a weak man who should stand up to Rose—but loves her too much. As June (Dani Altshuler plays Baby June and Boyd the adult “Dainty” June), both actresses put across the cheesy, trying-too-hard child star Mama Rose has created. And in a telling scene with Brown as Louise, Boyd lights up a cigarette and becomes June’s real self, snarky and wise-cracking, as she speaks the plain truth about their mother.
As Louise, Brown is a believable “tomboy” and takes us smartly through the stages of her transformation into the thinking man’s stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. She shows a sweet, bell-like voice in “Little Lamb,” is loud and funny with Boyd in the sister’s duet “If Momma Was Married,” and brings a fierce touch to her face-offs with Rose once Gypsy herself is the star. Dustin Simington’s tap routine as the big-dreaming chorus boy Tulsa is several cuts above, and Brandon Shreve as Yonkers stands out in a crowded ensemble.
Beyond these roles, the show, directed by Bill Sizemore, doesn’t lack for sparkle—but somehow doesn’t shine the way it should. Amy Parsons is the choreographer—and yes, the vaudeville numbers are supposed to be bad—but the ensemble dancing too often feels labored. Music director Mary Helen Atkins has worked wonders with a small group of musicians on other SSG musicals; this time, the music sounds thin from the start and doesn’t do much to pump up the energy of the production. And the three veteran strippers who show Louise the ropes (or the G-strings?) in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (Cassie Martinez, Becca Brown and Georgia Fender) need to take their own advice: these parts cry out for memorable, quirky performances, much bigger and broader than they’re played here.
In recent years, Stolen Shakespeare Guild has shown a real knack for musical theater, and we’ve come to expect quality from the company. Perhaps Gypsy suffers by comparison—it’s “only” a respectable show—but we look forward to next season, when SSG will produce The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Oklahoma! and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.