I often can’t defend the “classic” musicals to my peers. Shows like Guys and Dolls andAnything Goes can be hard to explain to modern audiences, and you have to say things like “It’s just some old-fashioned fifties fun!”. But I will at least try to defend Gypsy to peers, because underneath its older score and “that’s showbiz!” motif there’s a great story and some psychological drama. Gypsy is the third show in the CLO summer series and just opened this past Friday.
Gypsy tells the (true-ish) story of Gypsy Rose Lee, one of Burlesque’s biggest stars. It begins with Gypsy as a child, going by her true name Louise. Louise had a sister, June, who was considered more talented by their mother Rose, the ultimate stage mom. Rose is not above lying, flirting, or stealing to achieve stage time for her girls, and pushes them harder and harder to make June a star. The play chronicles how they started out with their child act, how they kept doing the act into their adult years, how Rose fell in love with agent Herbie, and what eventually led to Louise performing in a burlesque theater.
Rose is played by Kim Zimmer who is best known for starring on Guiding Light. This casting works for a variety of reasons, one of which is that Rose is emotionally the kind of character you would find in a soap opera. She pushes her kids and puts on a façade of doing it out of love and supporting her children’s wants, but when someone threatens her or calls her out she goes to a dark and angry place. Rose is a coveted musical theater role for many actresses and Zimmer has both the talent and presence required to make it work.
Herbie is played by Robert Newman, who was Zimmer’s Guiding Light costar (they were a “supercouple” apparently). Herbie quickly finds himself seduced and then in love with Rose, a situation that isn’t easy for anyone. To say that Rose is difficult to put up with is putting it lightly, and Herbie is always the one that tries hardest to treat her with kindness. Newman does a great job of making Herbie lovable in his interactions with Rose and Louise, and when he ultimately is pushed too far it’s heartbreaking to watch. Amanda Rose is lovely as Louise, who goes from shy “ugly duckling” to Burlesque bombshell over the course of the show. Her dreams of a simple life in Act 1 are hopeful and endearing, and her moment in Act 2 where she finds her self-confidence is beautiful. Also props for Ms. Rose for singing “Little Lamb” to an actual LIVE LAMB. You expect it to be a doll and then the head moves and you freak out. It was precious though.
What makes this play so great is that it is a slow burn leading to an explosion (similar to a soap opera, if you will). The first act covers quite a few years of the characters’ lives, and we see June perform the same routine at different venues with few changes. We see Herbie and Rose arguing, we see the girls’ wishing for a different life, but through it all Rose seems like just a really pushy stage mom. Right up until the end of Act 1, and then the whole feel of the show shifts. It is now clear that Rose isn’t quirky; she is obsessed, and it’s no longer amusing. As she sings her support of Louise in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” we see Louise morosely walk over to Herbie, who embraces her. The audience feels the same way as Louise; we’ve been putting up with Rose all this time and it is dismaying to see she won’t let go.
The score of this show is one I never listen to, but love seeing it live. Gypsy is often considered one of the first “book musicals”, which is a solid claim because all the songs do something to progress the plot along (there are no “big” dance numbers or anything like that). Mallory Michaellan (as “adult” June), Lucia Williams (“Baby” June) and Felicia Niebel (“Baby” Louise) do great at doing bad as we watch the girls awkwardly go through their mother’s one-note (and nauseatingly patriotic) routines. The Junes have all the right “child beauty pageant winner” enthusiasm while the Louises are appropriately awkward. Zach Trimmer (as one of June’s chorus boys) has a great solo number in “All I Need is the Girl”, showcasing his fine footwork and strong vocals. The show is hilariously stopped in Act 2 by a trio of veteran strippers who explain to Louise “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”, played by Amma Osei, Ruth Pferdehirt, and Susan Cella (who has had roles in all the CLO productions this year, but this is by far the funniest).
And of course the show is brought to a close with Rose performing “Rose’s Turn”, the cathartic eleven o’clock number that this show and this character need to make it the amazing experience that it is. Zimmer puts Rose through the ringer here, and her use of speak-singing in certain places of the song has a wonderful effect of showcasing her character’s angry slide into self-realization. Gypsy is a popular classic for a reason and I highly recommend going to check it out. If nothing else, maybe you’ll end up appreciating your own mother more.
Presented by Pittsburgh CLO
Directed by Charles Repole
Written by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)
Designed by Michael Anania (scenery), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting), MSMT Costumes (costumes)
Starring Kim Zimmer (Rose), Robert Newman (Herbie), Susan Cella (Miss Cratchitt/Tessie Tura), Jeffrey Howell (Uncle Jocko, others), Daniel Krell (Weber, others), Mallory Michaellann (Dainty June), Felicia Niebel (Baby Louise), Amma Osei (Mazeppa), Dallas Padoven (Georgie/Pastey), Paul Palmer (Pop), Gavan Pamer (Mr. Goldstone, others), Ruth Pferdehirt (Electra), Amanda Rose (Louise), Zach Trimmer (Tulsa), Lucia Williams (Baby June), and ensemble: Danny Bevins, Ben Bogen, Lindsey Bracco, Melessie Clark, Kevin Clay, Izchel Cuellar, Kate Johnson, L’ogan J’ones, Brooke Lacy, Alle-Faye Monka, Kevin Paul.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for two complimentary press tickets.
The show runs until July 19th. Tickets can be purchased here.
Performance Date: Friday, July 10, 2015