Story: It’s the early 1920s, and Rose is determined to make her mark in show business. Not as an entertainer on the vaudeville circuit exactly, but rather as an impresario who knows what’s best for booking agents and small-time venues in the many cities she visits with her two daughters, Dainty June and Louise. Rose pushes her children to extreme limits in her efforts to make the younger of the two, June, a bona fide star.
Keeping her girls, and the troupe that supports them, in children’s clothes way beyond their normal years, combined with Rose’s relentless drive, takes its toll on everyone around Rose, including her ever-faithful boyfriend, Herbie, and her daughters. Every time an obstacle is placed in her path, Rose draws upon mysterious quotes from the Bible for inspiration. Or is it desperation?
Highlights: Gypsy: A Musical Fable is a big, brawling, boisterous musical, a giant of the American stage that combined the talents of writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim when it premiered in 1959. That production also shrewdly employed the talents of Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the show, which ran for more than 700 performances before closing in 1961.
Based on the memoir of strip-tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, it’s been revived several times since, as other performers have tested their mettle belting out Styne’s magnificent score. Given the constraints of the modest performing space in the Tower Grove Abbey, Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary Bell and scenic designers Justin Been and David Blake took a ‘less is more’ approach for Stray Dog’s presentation, utilizing a velvet curtain at mid-stage and a modest array of props at either side to tell Mama Rose’s saga.
There’s even a clever bit with a cardboard locomotive to accentuate the troupe en route to another destination. This modest presentation allows the story to be focused on its characters, with generally satisfying results.
Other Info: Before the opening night production, Stray Dog had sold out its entire initial weekend of shows. Considering the sprawling scope of Laurents’ book and the old-fashioned, overly large cast that populates the tale, Bell and his troupe have done quite nicely in showcasing the merits of this legendary musical.
Of course, there’s a danger of clutter and claustrophobia ever present in putting so many players in such a confined area, but talent wins out. Deborah Sharn is most impressive as the relentless Mama Rose, who in our era would rightly be accused of child abuse.
Rose is a nasty, bullying individual who evokes nary a tear of pity with her pushy behavior. Sharn captures that cruel streak effectively, perhaps a bit too much as to allow any kind of compassion for her by an audience. As for her singing, Sharn is splendid, using her rich and powerful voice to convey standards such as the famous Act I finale, Everything’s Coming Up Roses.
Jennifer Theby Quinn matches Sharn with her own marvelous voice as Dainty June, paring nicely with Sabra Sellers as Louise, the latter-day Gypsy Rose Lee, on the jaunty ballad, If Mama Was Married. Sellers does well as the kind-hearted but lesser talented Louise, who finally finds her mark when she’s thrust into a burlesque act and discovers her own flair for ‘performance.’
Ken Haller is very good as Herbie, an ‘enabler’ before that word was popular, a genial guy who lets Rose walk all over him and others until he finally finds the backbone to leave his thrice-married girlfriend. Haller normally has a fine voice, too, but he too often sings out of his comfort-zone register in this presentation.
The massive supporting cast includes Mike Monsey and Charles Heuvelman in a variety of roles as proprietors and off-stage announcers as well as Rose’s long-suffering father (Heuvelman). Jenni Ryan, Paula Stoff Dean and Kimberly Still are a trio of strippers who perform on the same stage as Louise, while Lily McDonald and Isabella Koster shine as Baby June and Baby Louise, respectively.
Zach Wachter plays Tulsa, the ensemble player who elopes with Dainty June, with Steve Roma, Evan Fornachon and Mike Hodges as his fellow players. Eileen Engel, Sierra Buffum and Andy Kay are featured as showgirls, with Fiona Scott, Court Hyken, Ellie Lore and Lillian Kanterman in other roles.
Keyboardist and vocal director Chris Petersen also directs the brassy-sounding band from the second level of the set, aided by Colin Lovett on bass, Dedra Mason on flute and piccolo, percussionist Bob McMahon, Harrison Rich and Gabe Newsham on clarinet and alto saxophone and Bill Hershey on trumpet.
Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s handsome period costumes are courtesy of Stages St. Louis and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Tyler Duenow adds lighting and J.T. Ricroft provides a variety of choreographic moves that somehow are played out by such a large cast on such a diminutive stage.
Bell has shown previously that he is undaunted by challenges as varied as the Angels in America masterpiece and the provocative musical Spring Awakening. Here he does an admirable job with a cast of widely diverse talents to give his loyal audiences the flavor of an American classic.
Musical: Gypsy: A Musical Fable
Group; Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: April 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb