Saturday, February 7, 2015

Gypsy and her mother Rose

by Jenni Morin

From vaudeville to toddler pageants, Gypsy details the humor and horror of the queen of stage moms as she pushed her daughter to become a star. Gypsy, now playing at The Playhouse’s Russell Hill Rogers Theater through March 8, is considered the penultimate book musical, encapsulating the essence of the mid-century American stage.

Anna Gangai as Rose, Paige Berry as Louise
and David Blazer as Herbie in Gypsy at The
Playhouse. Photo by Siggi Ragnar.
Gypsy is inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque star who began headlining in the 1930s. With a book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, the musical offers a classic blend of story, song and a roller coaster of emotion. Rose pushes her young daughters, June and Louise, into show business, making Baby June the star and Baby Louise dress as a boy in the ensemble. Their vaudeville act gains mild success, but as the genre’s popularity begins to dwindle and Rose crushes June’s only chance at becoming an actress under her mother’s regime, June and the boys pack up and leave. Left with poor talentless Louise, Rose vows to now make her a star and tries desperately to shove her into June’s role. Louise is pushed into a burlesque act as Rose desperately clings to show business and this launches the illustrious career of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy is an early predecessor to today’s reality shows exploiting children for their parent’s gain, such as Dance Moms, Toddlers & Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and even Friday Night Tykes. Audiences are drawn to these parenting train wrecks because they feel at least someone is doing a worse job. From the raging internet comments of the mommy wars to the need to declare and defend a parenting style, society is left to wonder what end the means justify. Just as Rose is left at the end of the show to finally face the question of who it was all for, it’s obvious that any parent, despite their original intentions, can become obsessed with a goal or regimen and forget the child’s best interests. Despite her flaws, Rose was a career mother, making mothering into a career that is, but she was left with no retirement plan, a resume not her own and very resentful children. In a world of helicopter parents, tiger moms and overindulgence, it’s anyone’s guess if today’s children will grow up to be anywhere near as successful and independent as June and Louise and if the parents will finally empathize with Rose instead of judge her.

The show really is all about Rose — her tenacity, her drive, her vision, herself — and Anna Gangai as Rose embodies that force. David Blazer as Herbie manages to stand his ground and share the stage with her as an equal. Louise, played by Paige Berry, initially has a quiet presence about her, but eventually comes to command the stage, as expected, and tops her mother’s performance. As burlesque dancers, Nicole Erwin (Electra), Corina Zars (Mazeppa) and Sherry Gibbs Houston (Tessie Tura) missed the mark and were more bawdy parody than burlesque talents. The ensemble provided a great backdrop and Kyle Dvorak’s Tulsa was sweet and talented. Madison Calderon as Baby June really set the stage for Alison Hinojosa’s June, who, rightfully so, lacked the sparkle of her youthful counterpart.

The Playhouse’s production of Gypsy opens with a stunning drop featuring a marquee collage. As it rises, it reveals the flats and wheels of backstage, which felt like an odd choice of scenery, not quite complete or thoughtfully composed. The signs placed on easels on either side of the stage to mark the scene felt like an afterthought and did not match the grandiosity the show deserves. The set pieces, however, were detailed and complimentary, thanks to Scenic Designer Ryan DeRoos and Scenic Artist Stephen Montalvo. While the singers had trouble catching the rhythm at times, it was the musical direction of Jane Haas that kept the show moving. There also seemed to be some technical difficulties with the lights, including flickering spotlights, which bled onto the proscenium, and very noticeable dark spots where the actors were often in the shadows while saying their lines. Costumes (Laura Briseno and Rose Kennedy) and wigs (Fabian Diaz and Christina Casella) were suitable enhancements, but some not so flattering choices landed on the burlesque ensemble. All in all, Lizel Sandoval’s choreography was entertaining and Tim Hedgepeth directed an engrossing rendition of a theatre classic.

As is the case with most reality shows involving children, it’s the mothers who steal the show and Gypsy is no exception. Anna Gangai and Paige Berry as Rose and Gypsy are captivating in The Playhouse’s production of Gypsy. These two alone are worth the ticket, but it’s the story, so relatable, yet cautionary and inspiring, that has made this show a staple in musical theatre.

Gypsy runs at The Playhouse through March 8 with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit

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