There are about a dozen shows on television depicting the unerring devotion and uncompromising ferocity of stage moms, those parents who push their children to excel, at all costs.
Gypsy, presented at Irving's Lyric Stage in its original full orchestration thanks to the impressive work of musical director/conductor Jay Dias [see bottom of review for thoughts on this from Gregory Sullivan Isaacs], is the bible of pushy parents, and a show considered by many to be the greatest American musical.
To understand the importance of a show like Gypsy, one only needs to peruse the creative team who gave the show life. Jule Styne wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, Arthur Laurents wrote the book and Ethel Merman originated the role of Rose. It's a who's who of Broadway elite.
Add to that the fact that the focus of the show wasn't necessarily to be a vehicle for grand musical numbers. It was about the story. It had a strong plot and characters in addition to some of the most soul-jarring musical numbers ever written.
June (Kristin Wright and Ashton Smalling) and Louise (Taylor Hennings and Mary McElree) are the stage performer daughters of the aforementioned stage mom, Rose (Sue Mathys). In her desperation to make her favorite daughter, June, a star, Rose takes the girls out on the road trying to land on the Vaudeville circuit. Along the way they pick up some stray kids and form a show around June.
During one stop, Rose meets former agent and current candy salesman, Herbie (Sonny Franks). They quickly fall for each other but Rose chooses to keep the relationship professional, coaxing Herbie out of retirement to be her group's manager. Things are going well until Rose inevitably takes her role in June's career too far and prevents the young up and comer from accepting a star-making contract and runs away.
Not defeated, Rose turns her attention to the oft neglected Louise and vows to make her a star instead, prompting the most notable song from the show, "Everything's Coming up Roses," and yielding predictable results.
Calling the show Gypsy when Rose appears to be the main character can seem misleading. But, this turn of events brings the reveal of the true storyteller: Louise, or as she would later become known, the famous striptease artist and burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee.
And it's at this point that the brilliance of the show comes to light. Realizing that the story is being told from Louise's point of view creates a seismic shift in perception for the audience and sheds light on Rose as an ultimate tragic ﬁgure. Victor Frankenstein when he ﬁnally succeeds in creating his monster, only to be overrun by it. It's the ultimate lesson in be careful what you wish for.
Lyric Stage has matched a dynamic show and masterful orchestration with a stellar cast.
Mathys' earnestness and tenacity as Rose lend a depth to the role that can be easily lost. It would be easy to play Rose as a monster, a one-dimensional megalomaniac. But, Mathys imbues her with a latent vulnerability, an unquestionable love for her children, and a healthy dose of delusion. The end result is an incredibly complex character who is actually able to retain some semblance of audience sympathy.
Sonny Franks has that much sought-after ability to absolutely disappear into a role, yet still leave his indelible stamp on it. His turn as Herbie is heartbreaking. He's the one person in the world who is unwavering in his love with Rose. He sees through all of her ﬂaws. The only problem is, she can't. In a cast of characters worth rooting for, Franks' Herbie stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Mary McElree is surprising. And that's a good thing. June and Louise start as young children, the aforementioned Wright and Hennings), but once they're into their late teen years, Smalling and McElree take over the roles. And from her introduction, McElree lays back in the fauna, watching Rose gush over June, performing as the front half of a cow, and generally ﬁlling the role of second banana admirably. If you didn't know the story, you'd never expect what happens next when Louise is abruptly thrown into the spotlight.
The development of McElree's Louise is jaw-dropping. Almost in an instant, she moves from being the also-ran of the family, to the unwitting and reluctant star, to a fully developed and conﬁdent woman. And none of it comes off as forced or ﬂimsy. McElree carries it.
Aiding in the character's transition is a clothes-dropping montage, one of three such transitions in the show, executed via Len Pﬂuger's direction. That's just one example of his impressive handling of this project.
Because this particular staging isn't just about putting on a show. It's an important production because it's note for note, the exact same as the original Broadway production. Dias has completed a full restoration of the original score and it is performed by a 39-piece orchestra, including a guitar part that never made it to the original show. In addition to that, the canned music, during the burlesque house scenes, is the original music played on Broadway. Jerome Robbins' original choreography has been implemented. It's really as authentic a production as you'll ever see of this show. And Pﬂuger manages it all with great aplomb.
There's good reason why Gypsy is considered the greatest of American musicals. It's a decidedly American story and it takes place during a major turning point in American history, the Great Depression and demise of Vaudeville.
Lyric Stage's production gives you an opportunity to see this show like almost no one has ever seen it. The novelty combined with the high production value and powerful performances make Gypsy a must-see.
◊ And here are additional thoughts about conductor Dias and the orchestra's performance in Gypsy, from Gregory Sullivan Isaacs:
In my interview with Jay Dias, the music director of Gypsy at Lyric Stage, our academic discussion about the orchestrations, and the research and restoration to its original glory, did not fully prepare me for what I heard. If you think you have seen Gypsy, and unless you were in the Broadway audience in the '50s, you have nor really seen (or heard) the show.
The orchestrations are revelatory. They are complex, colorful and full of clever details that underline the action. The use of percussion is spare but important to the sound. The orchestra even changes character along with the situation. Sometimes they sound like a major symphony and then, at other times, they sound like a pathetic pit band for a seedy strip joint (not that I would know what that actually sounds like).
Inga Kroll, a friend of mine, plays in the violin section. She said that the violin part is expertly written for the instrument, is very playable, and is an pleasant experience for the musicians. She also complimented Jay as a conductor. She said that he is exceptionally clear, energetic, and knows every detail of the score. This is a real compliment because few such performances of Broadway shows meet these standards. Orchestras always play better when they enjoy what they are doing.
Jay’s work on this score certainly paid off.