Entertainment » Theatre

Gypsy

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Sep 6, 2017
Leigh Barrett in "Gypsy" at the Lyric Stage.
Leigh Barrett in "Gypsy" at the Lyric Stage.  

When "Gypsy" opened in 1959, it was subtitled "a musical fable," one with a hard, if true lesson at its center: that the child becomes the parent. It sometimes seems lost in more lavish productions of this musical, which chronicles the last days of vaudeville as seen through the eyes of the young Gypsy Rose Lee; but in the splendid, vest-pocket staging at the Lyric Stage, the interpersonal dynamics never get lost in the show business cavalcade. That truth is achingly realized in this production's final moments in which a mother and daughter reverse their roles.

That mother is, of course, Rose - one of the handful of roles that tested musical theater actresses for decades since Ethel Merman stormed through the role 58 years ago. She is, in short, the stage mother to end all stage mothers who stops at nothing to further the careers of her daughters, specifically Baby June, a ghastly Shirley Temple-wannabe who headlines the act that travels the country in the 1920s. Rose dismisses her other daughter Louise, consigning her to being the front end of a cow costume in one of the hilarious pastiches of god-awful vaudeville acts (wonderfully performed here by some delightfully hammy child actors).

How diminutive Louise becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the highest paid stripper in burlesque history, makes up the narrative to Arthur Laurents' book, which is easily one of the best written for the musical theater. Not only does Laurents capture the hard-edge of show business, he creates a character in Rose full of rich contradictions - warm, manipulative and driven by an all-consuming force that engulfs everyone around her. At one point she's described as a "frontier woman without a frontier," and it takes an actress of unusual resolve to capture her craven determination.

Leigh Barrett conveys that hunger. Her Rose is steely, to be sure - how can she not be? And she belts some of beltiest songs (by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim) ever written for a musical with confident aplomb. But what she does best is expose Rose's soft side. Her romantic scenes with Steven Barkhimer, who plays her romantic interest Herbie, have a lovely authenticity. She brings the role a warmth and charm that brings to mind what Tyne Daley brought to the role in one of the numerous, celebrated revivals of the show over the years. I had seen Barrett perform the role a few years ago when I didn't feel she quite got it. Not the case here - she nails Rose and it is a joy to watch.

What is also a joy to watch is the work of director-choreographer Rachel Bertone, who directs this production with style and insight. In the first act her choreography of the vaudeville numbers is campy fun, and in the second when Louise emerges as Gypsy Rose Lee, her strip has just right prurient edge; but what makes her staging so distinctive is how smoothly she integrates movement throughout. From the addition of dance to the overture to cleverly-staged scene changes, Bertone never lets her production lag. And she also keenly understands the interpersonal dynamics, which makes the final scenes so dramatic.

One of the other joys of "Gypsy" is how it showcases a number of supporting roles with show-stopping numbers. Margot Anderson-Song epitomizes the sheer awfulness (and fun) of Baby June in her vaudeville turns; Brady Miller conveys the dreams of a young dancer with a sleekly realized "All I Need Is The Girl," and, of course, Kathy St. George, Jordan Clark and Shannon Lee Jones stop the show cold as the trio of strippers who offer Louise the ABCs of stripping in "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." St. George is also put to good use in the first act as a bitchy secretary who confronts Rose; and Jones charms as a hilarious Tesse Tura. Stephen Barkhimer is just right as the always available Herbie, and Kirsten Salpini capably transforms mousy Louise into the ravishing Gypsy.

Janie E. Howland's designs, notably her decaying proscenium that frames the stage and her use of curtains, are a model for small productions such as this one - handsome to the eye and nicely scaled to the production's demands. It is augmented by Franklin Meissner, Jr.'s often shadowy lighting and Rafael Jaen's droll period costumes. The able musical direction by Dan Rodriguez captures the score's brassy edge with a small backstage band that sounds twice its size.

But this production, which continues through October 8, belongs to Leigh Barrett. She understands Rose's desperation, but can't control it. And as her delusional dreams push her forward, Barrett makes you believe that they just might come true. When they don't, and Rose must confront her life, the musical climaxes with a searing, heartbreaking musical soliloquy that would be daunting for most performers. Barrett makes it look easy and brings chills as her world collapses around her. The happy news at the Lyric is that "Gypsy" remains a great musical, thrillingly realized in this intimate production.

"Gypsy" continues through October 8, at the Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. For further information, visit the Lyric Stage website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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