Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Theater review: Music Theatre of Denton proves that Gypsy‘s forever relevant
The 11 piece orchestra really brought the numbers to life.
DENTON In a time when TV shows are named Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras, it’s hard to remember when stage moms were considered a bad thing. It’s not only acceptable but largely irrelevant in pop culture. But in the early 1900s, Rose Elizabeth Thompson Hovic was the ultimate stage mom, the archetype of the term. Gypsy, revived by Music Theatre of Denton, is the musical based loosely on Rose and her daughters, Ellen June and Rose Louise, who became the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy is noted by many critics as “the best musical of all time.”
Opening on Broadway in 1959, it has seen some of the best performances in musical history by the likes of Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Tyne Daily and Bernadette Peters. Few remember now, but this show was as big in ’59 as Les Misérables, Wicked, Hairspray, or Warhorse. The songs are among the most popular show tunes of all time. "Everything's Coming up Roses", "You Gotta Get A Gimmick", and "Let Me Entertain You" are just a few songs by the writing team of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, covered by artists even today, and used by countless auditioners over the years.
While its importance is arguable, it’s always popular and has held up well because it took a complicated history of a dysfunctional family and simplified it to its most basic storyline. Rose has a dream unfulfilled, which she tries to live through her daughters. Their dilemma is whether to go along with mom’s dream in spite of how degrading it is. Her love interest, Herbie, must decide whether his dream of love and family will come true as long as Rose’s dream is a priority. These are easily identifiable themes. Its nostalgia reminds us of those timeless themes.
Production values for Gypsy are large and many theaters choose to use large sets. Director Clay White and his production team chose to go simple and focus on the story. John Norine, Jr. designed a set with an open stage and simple scene flats brought on in various combinations.
These hinted at the many locations in this story. The settings were simply decorated in bright, contrasting and complementary colors with few distractions.
Lighting by Elizabeth Lambert accented and reinforced Norine’s design using bright, primary colors while making sure every actor was brightly lit.
Costumes were designed by Marcus Lopez and Marsha Keffer to be bright, 1900s period, age and class appropriate. Everyone who moved sets was also in costume and in character. I’m not sure who designed, made or played the cow, but it was a highlight, especially the singing and dancing.
This production had an eleven-piece orchestra onstage behind the performers. Conducted by Music Director, John Norine, Jr., the orchestra was exceptional and their give and take with the vocalists made the songs more “alive” than with recorded music. A highlight of this show was the sound balance. This story, told through its songs, had the perfect balance between singers and orchestra and we always got the full effect of singers’ strong voices. What a pleasure!
Gypsy is a large cast show and Director Clay White did a great job creating a sense of ensemble in his cast. Each member was energetic, invested in the story and fully committed to the role. The bit players, who may have only been on for a quick song or scene or only to move a piece, had great timing. There were many moments when a small walk-on character played by an ensemble actor added a look or a move which made the scene sparkle.
Choreography was designed by Jaclyn Butt. This show has an amazing array of dance numbers and movements, from the young June and Louise troupes to dances by Rose and Herbie, to a cute dance number featuring the cow. Most dances seemed to take their cue from dance styles of the period, including can-cans and dance steps you might only see in historical documentaries.
Several sets of actors played the characters of June and Louise. Baby June and Baby Louise opened the musical as the child actors who were pushed on stage by their mother. Baby June is the blonde “star”, and she was played by Katie Haynes in this performance.
As a sixth grader Katie had the dancing and singing chops of a much older child. Transitions from her role as a naïve performer to a jaded but more experienced child actor came out in the course of a few songs. In the child act, as in their real life, June’s sister, Louise, played in this performance by Emma Hay, is second fiddle to her more glamorous sister.
In the stage act created by Rose for the young kids, she plays one of the Newsboys who back up June. Hay’s performance was both raw and appropriately amateurish for her role as a “no-talent” child, but her bio proved she is an actor with lots of theater experience. After several child scenes, an interesting stage transition took place from young June and Louise and their troupe into their teen versions. During a single song, the young kids danced off and the older kids danced on carrying on the show as if it was the same show many years later.
The older June was played by Anna-Marie Boyd. Her character looked like an older version of Baby June and Boyd performed with much higher skills to show June’s growth and experience on the stage. Boyd also showed June’s conflict as she’s pushed by her mother to work when she clearly doesn’t want to. It’s hard for even young adults to break away from their mother, but that was a choice she struggled with to save herself. The older Louise, played by Katie Moyes Williams, continued to be second fiddle to June, not accepted by her mother, and Williams showed her going through internal conflicts while outwardly trying to show a brave and understanding face. She added a sweetness to her songs which Boyd could not allow her diva character to show. Williams’ song to her lamb, a birthday present, was sweet and soulful. Later, away from Rose, Boyd and Williams sing “If Mama Was Married” together which allowed them to express the real feelings of June and Louise. We heard the full vocal range of Boyd and Williams and saw their personalities come out.
A key scene comes when the family gets booked into a burlesque hall and Louise faces her greatest challenge. Will she allow her mother to control her or use the moment to take a new direction? In this scene, one of the quintessential songs of the show is sung by three strippers. “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” is the song that moves Louise to her decision. Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura, played by Olivia Norine, Melissa Simms and Hannah Lane, performed this song, showing off their gimmicks of a trumpet, a lighted bikini and butterflies.
Costumers Lopez and Keffer deserve credit for creating those costumes, as does Choreographer Jaclyn Butt who put together a wonderful dance that allowed them to play with their costumes and props while showing their unique personalities and acting skills. Their song had the audience cheering.
Louise, of course, goes on to become the famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, and finds the fame and fortune her mother only dreamed about. Watching Williams take Louise through these growing stages, from a country bumpkin dancing with a cow to the famous stripper, was fun to watch. Her own version of “Let Me Entertain You” defined the more risqué meaning in that song and allowed Williams to transition through many layers of Louise’s growth.
Herbie is the agent who becomes the family’s business manager and also the love interest for Rose. James D. Laney played Herbie as the milquetoast he is, pushed around by Rose, falling in love with her but unable to stand up to her outlandish antics and demands. Rose could never see him past her own ambition and Laney played his growing heartbreak all the way to the end.
Gypsy is a story about Louise, but Rose is the star. It’s her story we watch as she sings half the songs, four of them solo. This is the role created by Ethyl Merman in 1959 and it has been played by major Broadway and Hollywood stars ever since. In Denton, Rose was played by Maria Valastro Harris. A consummate professional singer, Harris brought a stage presence to this role that compared well with her predecessors. Her vocal strength and accuracy easily handled the range and number of songs she had to sing, and she nailed the accompanying emotional roller-coaster Rose had to ride as she moved from the heights of her family’s success down to their deepest failures. Rose has a strong dream that drives her and Harris had a strong objective to keep digging into that strength. Like her predecessors Harris enabled her Rose to experience the range of conflicts and emotions the real Rose must have felt.
Director White used his research on the real story to help his actors dig deeper into the psyche of their characters. Louise needs to be loved by her mother. June needs to get away. And Rose needs to keep reaching for a success that eluded her all her life.
These motivations drove these characters and the actors who played them. In the end, Rose described her own story with an important realization. She was “born too soon and started too late.” In the end, she found success only when she reunited with her now-famous daughter, but she lost much more along the journey.
If you haven’t seen this classical musical, or haven’t seen it in a while, Music Theatre of Denton has done a great job. You will likely, as Director White writes, “walk out of the theatre with a tear in your eye but a reassuring smile on your face, much like Rose.”
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