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Gypsy
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
July 27, 2018

Cast of Gypsy Photo: The Muny

It makes sense that the Muny would be staging Gypsy in its historic 100th season, considering the show’s reputation as an iconic American classic. It’s a show that’s been lauded for its strong book, its memorable score, and its well-realized characters, and particularly for the role of Rose–a part that has been played by many legendary performers over the years from Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury to Patti Lupone and Imelda Staunton. It’s also been filmed three times, and although I had seen two of those three filmings, I had never seen the show onstage in its entirety before, having been part of a group trip to a community theatre production when I was a teenager that was lesss than great, although I was struck by the excellent songs and intriguing story. Although I had wanted to stay, I was outvoted and my group left that production at intermission, so I only got to see half of it. Now, the Muny is presenting this show and I’m happy, not just because I finally get to see the whole show on stage, but also because it’s such a wonderful production, staged with such precision, attention to detail, stunning production values and a superb cast lead by Broadway and Muny veteran Beth Leavel.

This show is a fictionalized account based on the memoirs of famous mid-20th Century stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee isn’t the main character here, although she is important, and the story does show how Louise (Julia Knitel, with Elise Edwards as the younger “Baby Louise”) eventually became Gypsy Rose Lee. The primary focus, though, is on her mother, Rose (Leavel), a determined “stage mother” who once had hopes of stardom for herself but eventually pours all her energy into her daughters’ success in Vaudeville, and particularly her younger daughter, June, first as the headlining child performer “Baby June” (Amelie Lock) and later as the teenage “Dainty June” (Hayley Podschun). As Rose promotes the act in various venues on the West Coast, she eventually meets Herbie (Adam Heller) an agent-turned-candy salesman who is attracted to Rose, and whom she persuades to represent June’s act. While Herbie hopes to marry Rose, she strings him along, also neglecting Louise in her focus on the “star” of the act, June, and both sisters feel the pressure of having grown up on the road. Rose’s indomitable drive alienates and intimidates a lot of people, but the act is sucessful for a time, although not without consequences, as key figures in her life eventually are driven away. Although the story is well-known, I won’t give away too much, other than the obvious fact of who Louise eventually becomes. How she gets there, though, is a pivotal part of the drama and her relationship with her domineering mother.

Rose herself is a formidable character, a challenging role that’s considered one of the most sought-after roles in musical theatre. She’s complex and forceful, and not always likable, although a strong performer can make her watchable and even sympathetic in crucial moments. Here, Leavel takes the role and fills that colossal Muny stage with her powerful voice and memorable presence. She has her over-the-top moments, as is expected for the character, but she also portrays the characters humanity and desperate need for validation with clarity. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are intense, but she also displays an easy chemistry with Heller’s supremely likable and dependable Herbie in songs like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”. Her last scene with the grown-up Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee is especially poignant. Knitel, for her part, is excellent as Louise, showing a truly credible personal journey as she grows from insecure teenager to world-class burlesque performer in the course of the show. There are also stand-out performances from Podschun as the outwardly perky but increasingly exasperated June, by Drew Redington in a dazzlingly danced turn as chorus boy and aspiring song-and-dance man Tulsa, and especially by Jennifer Cody, Ellen Harvey, and Ann Harada as the trio of strippers who explain the secrets of their success to Louise in the show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number. The whole cast is excellent here, from the leads to the ensemble, with some cast members playing a few different roles and everyone in excellent form in singing, dancing, and acting.

One of valuable lessons I learned from that half-production I saw years ago is that pacing in this show is crucial. This is a show that, as great as it is, depends a lot on timing and energy. Director Rob Ruggiero has staged this show at just the right pace, so it’s not too slow but still takes the time to tell the story well. At the Muny, the lavish production values also help, with and excellent versatile set designed by Luke Cantarella that makes great use of the Muny’s turntable and authentically recreates the look and atmosphere of Vaudeville theatres and Depression-era America. There are also excellent costumes by Amy Clark, striking lighting by John Lasiter, and impressive use of video, designed by Nathan W. Scheuer.

This is a show that demands a great production, and the Muny has delivered that here. Anchored by the excellent performances of Leavel and her co-stars, this is a Gypsy production that’s worth seeing and remembering. It’s a magnificent production.

Adam Heller, Beth Leavel, Julia Knitel Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Gypsy in Forest Park until August 2, 2018

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Mike Isaacson

The Muny revealed the lineup for their historic 100th season today, and I was honored to be invited to attend the press conference making the announcement. It looks like the Muny has a lot of exciting events in store to celebrate this milestone year, and as I sat there listening to the announcements, I found I was listening not just as a “member of the press”, but as a fan for whom St. Louis is my adopted hometown. I’ve been seeing shows at the Muny since my family and I first moved here in 2004, and in a fun coincidence, the first show I saw there is one that will also be part of the Muny’s 100th season.

The are many great shows and events planned for next year, as announced by the Muny’s Marketing and Communications director Kwofe Coleman and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, following introductory remarks by the Muny’s President and CEO, Dennis Reagan. In addition to the lineup of seven musicals, there will be parties, an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, and a documentary on HCTV as well as Judith Newmark’s continued “Muny history” article series in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For more information, see the Muny 100 page on their official website.  Now, on to the list!

Dates and exact order will be announced at a later date, but the full line-up of shows is as follows:

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway

The Wiz

Singin’ In the Rain

Annie

Gypsy 

Jersey Boys

Meet Me in St. Louis

I have a lot of thoughts about this list, but for the most part, I think it’s a great lineup. In Isaacson’s introductions of the shows, he repeatedly talked about the Muny’s legacy and its historical reputation, as well as the idea of musical theatre as an American innovation. These are all American shows, with some having a long history at the Muny. There are two shows here, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Jersey Boys, that will be regional theatre premieres. There are also time-honored classics and more modern classics. There’s also, as I mentioned above, the first show I ever saw at the Muny, Meet Me In St. Louis, which is an obvious choice considering what this show means for the history of this city.  It’s a lineup that is sure to appeal to a wide audience, as the Muny generally seeks to do, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Isaacson’s Muny will do with them. Also, while I’m familiar with all of these shows and have seen the movies and/or televised versions of six of them, I’ve only seen three of them live on stage before, so this will be a particularly interesting season for me to cover.  I’m looking forward to it, and to all of the various celebrations the Muny has in store for their 100th season.

 

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