Review: GYPSY

by Lynn on May 29, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Playing until Oct. 7, 2023.

Book by Arthur Laurents

Music by Jule Stein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee

Directed by Jay Turvey

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreographed by Genny Sermonia

Set and costumes by Cory Sincennes

Lighting by Kevin Fraser

Sound by John Lott

Cast: Ariana Abudaqa

Andi Biancaniello

Jason Cadieux

Krystle Chance

Wren Evans

Kristi Frank

Élodie Gillett

Kyle Golemba

Damian Gradson

Kate Hennig

Allan Louis

Julie Lumsden

Kevin McLauchlan

Mike Nadajewski

Hannah Otta

Drew Plummer

Shakeil Rollock

Jaqueline Thair

And a large chorus

A fine production with a stellar performance of Kate Hennig as Mama Rose.

The Story. The book is by Arthur Laurents. The music is by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim who was 29 when he wrote them.

The musical is suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee who was a burlesque star, stripper, also a writer. But while it’s called Gypsy the story is really about Rose. She was the quintessential stage mother. She pushed and pushed her two daughters, June and Louise, to perform and be in showbusiness.

Baby June was the star of the act, singing, dancing, gymnastics. Louise, her older sister by one year, always played supporting roles in the act. June was preferred and Louise was overlooked, until June had enough of playing children and eloped with one of the chorus boys in the act. Rose just transferred her attention to Louise in the hopes she could carry on her mother’s dreams of a career in show business.

They were accidentally booked into a burlesque house with strippers, which horrified Rose. The burlesque theatre needed a stripper quickly because the one they had was just arrested for soliciting. Louise was pushed into that role and was accidentally introduced as Gypsy Rose Lee.  She was awkward and frightened but she did it.  That led to other jobs until her career and confidence grew and so did her notoriety. This led to a contretemps with her mother.

The Production. Cory Sincennes’ sets of various backstages are appropriately dingy, capturing the gloom, dust and disrepair of the backstage of an American vaudeville theatre. The language of the backstage hands is vulgar, loud and impatient.

Jocko (Allan Louis) is involved with a talent contest that he will rig so that a young girl covered in balloons will win, to get the ‘favour’ of the girl’s mother. Also entered in this talent show is Baby June (Ariana Abudaqa) and her sister, Louise (Hannah Otta). When it’s their turn to sing, their mother, Rose, (Kate Hennig) calls out from the theatre as she walks down the aisle to the stage, to “sing out” and other instructions. When she gets on stage she instructs the lighting man to ‘hit Baby June with a pink light’, as Jocko instructed him to do to the balloon girl, thus giving her an advantage. Rose instructs the orchestra on the tempo for the music. It’s all very efficient and with a smile. She takes an objecting Jocko to the side and lets him know she’s wise to his scheme to get balloon girl to win and she won’t stand for it.

Rose is such a huge part—full of star power and human frailty. She’s a woman whom her daughter Louise says “Could have been a star.” And the wise Rose says, “If I coulda been, I woulda been, and that’s showbusiness.”  The intriguing thing about Rose is that she probably did not have (singing) talent, and yet is consistently played by power-house women with singing talent who could act: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daily, Imelda Staunton, Patti LuPone, Bette Midler for example.

Rose keeps having new ideas about ‘the act’ for her children, but it’s the same act with a different name. The dialogue for the act is cheesy. Rose is deluded and determined to promote her children as young girls, even though they are young women. She won’t be told, even by her children. She is living a dream vicariously of show-biz success for her children. If they get attention then so does she and she craves it. She felt abandoned, first by her mother, then her husbands and finally by June, when she ran off with one of the chorus boys in the act. Now she puts all her hopes on Louise, who she knew was there, but did not shower with attention—she did remember her birthday.

When Louise begins to come into her own on her own as Gypsy Rose Lee, she distances herself from her mother. In time she tried to leave her mother behind—there was a sign at the stage door that Rose was not to be allowed back stage. They have a row which results in the great show stopper “Rose’s Turn” in which Rose gets her star turn even if it’s in her imagination. Rose’s brilliance in that song is seen by her daughter, in the wings. She sees her mother’s ambition and gives that famous line “You could have been a star, Mama.” And Rose replies, “If I coulda been, I woulda been. And that’s show business.” The truth is revealed, at last, that drives her. The hope of regaining her lost chance at stardom is transferred to her children. What pressure for everybody.  

Playing all the facets of Rose is a tricky proposition. We’ve seen singers who act, play Rose (Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, etc.) We’ve seen actors who sing play Rose (Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Imelda Staunton).  Kate Hennig is an actor who can sing, all gloriously. She plays Rose with such determination, such nuance and drive, it’s a thing of beauty. When Rose marches down that aisle of the theatre in the first scene, she is committed to her children but not over powering initially. She does not start at level 10 of power. She builds up to it.  Her mind is always working to improve a situation, or change one. She thinks some curtains will make a nice coat—next thing she’s wearing a coat made of the curtains. She always gets ideas when something strikes her.

She meets a kind candy salesman backstage, chats him up, finds out his name is Herbie (Jason Cadieux) and that he was an agent and charms him into being their agent. Hennig plays Rose with a smile, charm, a salesperson’s wiliness and sheer, unstoppable optimism. When June left it was a low point for Rose—another person leaves her—but she then makes that negative into a positive by now focusing on Louise. She sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The lyric is telling and we clearly get the reason when she sings: “Everything’s coming up roses for me (bold and italics are mine) and for you.” It’s Rose who is living vicariously through her children and she will not be shunted aside.  She always has a plan.

Hennig can also sing. It’s a strong, powerful voice. She realizes the nuance and shading in the lyrics and shows us their and her beating heart. In “Rose’s Turn”, is she imagining this star turn on that deserted stage, her name in lights and bold letters? The arms are out, waiting for applause. We give it. She looks thrilled and confused as if so say, “Am I imagining this applause? This adulation? Please don’t stop.”

In the backstage world of grunge, yelling, dust, and guarding one’s space, the appearance of Herbie, the accommodating candy salesman, is a breath of fresh air. Jason Cadieux plays Herbie with grace, courtliness and sweetness. Herbie is a mensch, a decent man who just wants to love Rose and her daughters and live a normal life. Rose does not want that life enough.

As Louise (Gypsy), Julie Lumsden is beautifully introverted, almost folding into herself, when she is second banana to June, but comes into her own as Gypsy. She gains poise, subtlety and the confidence to be coy and alluring. In a profession (stripping) that needed a gimmick to be noticed and rise above the others, Gypsy Rose Lee’s gimmick was that at all times, she was a lady. She left her audiences wanting more and didn’t give it to them.

Jay Turvey has directed this with confidence and keen eye to capture the squalor and lack of glamour of vaudeville and later burlesque. He realizes the many and various relationships of people who just want to be noticed and how devastating that is when they aren’t. A fine production of this deeply felt musical.

Comment. Rose did something right. She pushed her two children to be notable in the theatre in their own way and they succeeded. Louise became Gypsy Rose Lee who was not just a stripper (or ecdysiast as she put it), but one with brains and alure, and a frequent guest on talk shows of the day. She wrote successful books and had her own television show. Her sister June was June Havoc who became an actress, director and writer. June Havoc played the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1982, as Mrs. Lovett opposite Ross Petty in Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. Talented women who had a determined stage mother pushing them. The stuff of musicals.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 7, 2023.

Running time: 3 hours, approx. (1 intermission)

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