‘Gypsy’ takes off at Classic Theatre of Maryland

The direction and tech work well, the cast is fine, and one of the most delightful aspects of the show is the dancing.

How do you revive a show that is widely considered to be the greatest musical of all time?

The story of Gypsy Rose Lee’s fraught relationship with the mother of all stage mothers, Rose, boasts a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. Rose has been played by Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti Lupone. Critic Frank Rich called it “Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear.” The score contains gems like “Some People,” “Small World, Isn’t It,” “Let Me Entertain You,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” and the immortal “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” It is an audience favorite and an actress’s dream role. But all of these advantages add up to near-impossibly high expectations.

Julia L. Williams (Louise), Christine Asero (Rose), and John Pruessner (Herbie) in ‘Gypsy.’ Photo by Sally Boyett.

Classic Theatre of Maryland’s production almost hits the mark.

The direction and tech work well. From the very beginning, when Joyce Liao’s marquee lighting and footlights and colored cyc all seem to dance along with the famous overture, director Sally Boyett is in full command of her space. She marks the scenes by titles projected on the cyc in old-fashioned type, and the scene changes are fast and smooth. She makes good use of the thrust stage, especially when Baby June (Aliza Cohen) performs her curtsey-kick-and-squeal to all three sides of the audience, again and again. Even though the stage is not large, and the cast is, the space never seems crowded, even during dance numbers.

Backing tracks, rather than an orchestra, supply the music. This allows the score to shine, but it also means the singers have to match the tracks, rather than being cued by a conductor. Music Director Maureen “Reenie” Codelka has coached the singers well, but the interplay between them and the music might have had more life if played live.

One of the most delightful aspects of the show is the dancing, choreographed to the full by Sally Boyett. The tap dancing is particularly entertaining, and the chorus girls in the second act are used well to frame Gypsy in her numbers as well as to cover for set and costume changes.

The cast is fine. The children in the first act, from Baby June and little Louise (Miranda Kvedys) to the chaotic talent show tots to the Boy Scouts Rose abducts on the way to LA, are good enough to enthusiastically project being not good enough. As they are replaced by the older members of the troupe, the fun increases. The adults double their roles well, particularly Dexter Hamlett, who shows various flavors of frustration and bewilderment as Pop, Weber, Mr. Goldstone, and Cigar as they encounter the irresistible force that is Rose.

One of the show’s highlights is Tulsa’s dreamy dance solo, “All I Need is the Girl,” performed with graceful intensity by Neal Bechman. It seems a shame that Louise (Julia L. Williams) does not make clearer that while he is searching for “the girl,” she is pining for him, which gives the number its emotional underpinning.

Another high point is the irresistible “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” in which the three veteran strippers Mazeppa (Abigail Weinel), Electra (Dance Captain Mackenzie Koehne), and Tessie Tura (Zoe Kanter) demonstrate their particular brands of “no talent” to Louise. (Electra’s puffing on a stage cigarette even during the number had many in the audience fanning themselves and coughing, unfortunately.) This song provides actress/dancers with a perfect opportunity to create comic characters to convulse audiences, and these three do it with brass, brilliance, and grace.

The principals also do their jobs well. John Pruessner is very funny as Uncle Jocko, while as Herbie he seems to fade into the background next to Rose. As June, Allison Meyer projects an effective desperation under her plastered-on smile. Williams makes a convincing transition from plain Louise to the glamorous, elegant Gypsy.

And then, of course, there is the crucial character that makes the show. Christine Asero’s Rose is attractive physically and vocally. There is no question why three husbands and Herbie would fall for her. She has energy and charm, as well as grit and determination. Her voice, rather than being the clarion call of an Ethel Merman, is sweeter, with a rich vibrato, fully up to the range of the role.

Christine Asero (Rose) in ‘Gypsy.’ Photo by Sally Boyett.

So, with all this excellence and talent going for it, why doesn’t this Gypsy quite “hit the heights”?

Some choices mute the show’s impact. One is the way the strip scenes are treated. Boyett, also the costume designer, has created some beautiful dresses for the numbers, but she doesn’t seem to do much with them. A couple of times, Gypsy, rather than strutting around the stage, simply takes off her gown behind some showgirls’ fans, followed by a blackout. Another time, she rather awkwardly disrobes behind a large hat. And when the famous bit comes where she drops her dress and hides her charms behind a curtain, the lights fall so fast that the audience can’t savor the moment. (The final silhouette pose is effective, however.)

But the biggest disappointment seems to be a lack of depth. This show has endured not just because it has lights! dancing! and music! although it has all that in spades, but because it is a complex portrayal of a woman’s obsession and how it affects her daughters and everyone around her. Especially in the first act, this production seems to skate along the surface — well sung and danced, technically excellent, but not delving deeper into the characters. Rose’s determination is clear in “Some People,” but not her desperation. Louise’s “Little Lamb” is pretty but doesn’t explore her bewilderment at not even knowing how old she is. The scene where Herbie finally leaves should be wrenching, but Rose asks, “Why does everybody walk out?” as if she’s asking him the time.

The emotional depth increases, as it must, during the big confrontation between Rose and Gypsy. Williams’ rendition of Louise’s famous “I am Gypsy Rose Lee! I love her” speech, as well as her facial expressions while she tries to ignore Rose’s bullying, are her finest moments. Drama also heightens somewhat during the climactic “Rose’s Turn.” But whereas everyone from Stephen Sondheim onward has seen this number as Rose’s nervous breakdown, that depth of crisis seems to be muted in this production.

Some of this could be chalked up to the speed of the backing tracks. Gypsy is a long show. It would be a natural impulse for a director not to want to let it drag. But as Sondheim himself said in his commentary on his lyrics, Finishing the Hat, “There’s not a moment in Gypsy that isn’t entertaining.” No audience is going to complain if Gypsy is 2:45 instead of 2:30, if that means fully plumbing the show’s considerable emotional depths.

After all, a show about stripping shouldn’t hesitate to bare what’s underneath.

Running Time: Two and a half hours including one 15-minute intermission.

Gypsy plays through April 28, 2024, at Classic Theatre of Maryland – 1804 West Street, Suite 200, Annapolis, MD. For tickets (58.75–$78.75 including fees), call the box office at 410-415-3513 or purchase online.

Thursday Evenings at 7:30 pm
Friday Evenings at 8 pm
Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm
Sundays at 2 and 7:30 pm

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past [mumble] decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters, and programs, and generally theatrically meddled on several continents. She has made a specialty of playing old bats — no, make that “mature, empowered women” — including Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest (twice); Mama Rose in Gypsy and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd — when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.”) She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easygoing. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies. Most recently, she directed, costumed, and designed and painted the set for Rockville Little Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer, for which she won the WATCH Award for Outstanding Set Painting. In real life, she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.


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