This Styne, Sondheim, and Laurents classic came out in 1959, just two years after the emergence of memoirs from famous striptease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee. Based on those memoirs, the character central to the plot is Rose, the overbearing stage mom that poor Gypsy Rose, aka daughter Louise, must endure until her eventual fame as a burlesque icon. Read more about the show here.
Gypsy has been a staple production for professional and community circuits for decades. With so many renditions out there, how does the Williams Street Rep production hold up?
There’s a lot to be said for various elements of this production. The music, lead by Music Director Mike Potts welcomes the audience with waves of well paced, rousing, familiar tunes in the overture. The quality of accompaniment throughout the show is consistently smooth and sweeping. At this venue there are many choices of where to put the orchestra; for Gypsy, the , it’s mostly under the stage in the pit, with some players just below either side of a floor piece extended from the center edge of the stage.
The rest of the set, designed by Adam Liston, is comprised of various isolated pieces which, when swapped around or combined with alternate pieces, presents a nice variety of looks and environments, undoubtedly helping with space and organizing backstage. Most sets are simple and do a nice job getting the correct feel of the kitchen area, the Chinese restaurant and theater space. The set used for the stage is especially nice, being able to rotate, showing a backstage view as well as the front. With a few alterations, it serves equally well as Gypsy’s other venues, both low- and high-end. The only set problem is long set changes, too often without underscore.
From the start of the first scene, the audience is charmed by the troop of child actors, then wowed by their tapping and dancing. Playing the younger versions of later leads, the kids offer a great start to the show. Congratulations to Director and Choreographer Mark Mahallak for the wonderful vaudeville dances. Special kudos to Mya Berg who plays Baby June. Her character is engaging and adorable with Berg showing off a great sense of comic timing.
Amanda Flahive presents this latest incarnation of Rose, the over the top scheming mother, who uses her children to try to make up for the fame she was never allowed to pursue. Flahive does an admirable job of presenting such a complex combination of likable qualities with controlling drive that alienates those who love her. Outside of a few moments toward the end where the character is a bit over dramatic, Flahive has good control over some very subtle nuances in dialogue and interaction, including her final song “Rose’s Turn.” She was a joy to watch and a good choice as Rose.
Another casting standout is Joe Lehman as Rose’s long-suffering boyfriend Herbie. Lehman is a clear talent, with skills in stage movement, complementing the performance of every actor he shares scenes with. No small feat, and clearly a pro. The chemistry between him and Flahive draws the audience straight in to their world, leaving them feeling emptier when the relationship crumbles.
Costume Designer Lisa Hale generally does a wonderful job with the line of costumes for Rose, Herbie and the other characters. With the exception of a few pairs of pants worn by one of the young kids and by one of the older version “kids,” the costumes look period-correct. Some serious issues involving costumes come up at the show’s end. But let’s leave that for later. There are a few other non-costume related anachronistic details, such as using a 70’s Samsonite-style suitcase onstage, but overall, other props and set dressing are fine.
Most of this musical story surrounds the days preceding the Gypsy Rose burlesque days, and that’s just as well since this is the strongest part of the production, and worth the price of the ticket alone. Not to take away from the three burlesque characters, Tessie Tura played by Theresa Arnold, Electra played Kate Wilford, and Mazeppa played by Sarah Weinstein. These three ladies are quite entertaining, but once their bit is over, all the pressure to give the audience the burlesque wow factor is on Gypsy Rose Lee, played by Willow Schneider.
In the first act and early on in the second act, Schneider does a fine job portraying the marginalized but cheerful “other” sister, Louise. Unfortunately for her, many elements come into play to sabotage Schneider ever really capturing the verve and sophistication of her character’s transition to burlesque diva at the end. And it’s not all her fault.
Patrons who come to this show expect the elegance and mystery of the original Gypsy Rose. Many are also familiar with another modern burlesque performer, Dita Von Teese. This production would do well to pay attention to some particular details from her act and up the elegance and quality of the artistic elements when the show reveals the final version of Gypsy Rose.
While one scene does attempt to dress the set with elegant backdrop and lighting, the gowns and hairstyle used for the actress are sorely wanting. Instead of a beautifully coiffed wig for the final look, the actress simply puts an anachronistic modern hair claw into a clunky straight wig—a style many use when cleaning the bathroom. In addition, productions usually allow the actress to show some skin without exposing anything objectionable. At least they could use a hard-to-notice flesh bodysuit and attache strategically placed pieces to it, mimicking semi-nudity in a safe manner. Sadly, this production does neither.
Instead, the final Gypsy look is far less than elegant, sexy, or expensive looking. To add insult to injury, when the actress is supposed to gives hints of flesh, instead, we see full pantyhose waistbands and actual clothing pieces. There is never a real tease to the final scenes. What a shame.
As a whole, the Williams Street Rep offering of Gypsy is lots of fun. The lion’s share of the acting, sets and all of the music and dance is worth coming for even with the disappointing treatment of the final scenes.
“Gypsy” runs through November 1 at the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N Williams Street, Crystal Lake. Information and tickets (priced at $32.50 and $38.50) are available online here or by phone at (815) 356-9212.