REVIEW: ‘Gypsy’ one Broadway’s biggest hits on stage at Arden

“Gypsy” is now on stage at Arden Theatre Company.
“Gypsy” is now on stage at Arden Theatre Company. PHOTO BY WIDE EYED STUDIOS

IF YOU GO

“Gypsy” is on stage through June 25 at The Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. Call 215-922-1122, or check ardentheatre.org.

It is impossible to think of the show “Gypsy,” without thinking of Ethel Merman, the originator of the role of Rose, the controlling, pushy, mother of the little girl who is to become Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous burlesque stripper. As a kid, I had the LP record and knew every song on it.

The movie version starred the popular screen actress, Rosalind Russell, who did not sing her own songs. Subsequent revivals on Broadway featured Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone.

The Arden Theatre, in presenting “Gypsy” to Philadelphia, gives us a chance to experience the infamous Mama Rose, and to see once more, the powerful story of two girls and their ambitious mother, trying to make it on the Vaudeville circuit. But even without the story, the songs alone are wonderful. I doubt that there were few in the audience who weren’t singing the songs in their heads as they were performed on stage. “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “Small World,” and “Everything’s Coming up Roses” are some of those classic songs of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim.

The other major character that the three encounter on the road is Herbie, a most kind man who loves Rose, cares about the kids, and travels with them as their agent. Anthony Heald is perfection in the role of Herbie. A real softy at heart, he counterbalances the tough persona of Rose.

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The show opening overture was one of the best I’d ever experienced in a musical. As the band plays, the actors move in silence, in shadow. And from the very beginning , it was a joy watching the kids, Baby June (Alexa Hunt) and Baby Louise (Veronica Nardo), particularly as June demonstrated her cartwheels and splits. Later in the show, Malik Akil does a virtuoso dance number as Tulsa, one of the newsboys Rose has recruted for the act that surrounds Baby June.

In fact, the solo numbers were the best parts of “Gypsy.” In “Ya Gotta Get a Gimmick,” Miss Mazeppa’s (Joliet F. Harris) is a riot with her trumpet. In “Little Lamb,” Louise (Caroline Dooner) touches our heartstrings with that short song about her birthday.

Louise is a complex character. She is part of the little troupe and is a good sister and daughter, but she is a loner. We feel for her and we wonder how she will evolve into Gypsy Rose Lee. Dooner is superb in portraying the second fiddle who her mother first ignores, then tries to turn into someone she is not. As for her transformation in Gypsy, she makes it seem so smooth and effortless.

Mary Martello, as Mama Rose, heads of the cast of one of the most famous (and some say best) shows on Broadway in the history of the Great White Way. Martello is an outstanding singer and a very fine actor. I have seen her many, many times on Philadelphia stages. She sang her songs with passion and with vigor. I loved listening to “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” But something wasn’t working for me and it took a while for me to figure it out.

What was often missing in this production (more in the first act) was chemistry. The story as written by Arthur Laurents is a character driven tale. Sometimes, I felt as though the actors were just talking, but not to each other. It was like a beautiful cake with all the right ingredients, which just hadn’t been stirred enough. Instead of being in the theater, I felt at times as if I was at the opera where there were wonderful arias, but in between, the actors were resting for the next big number.

It is most challenging to put together a perfect ensemble piece, especially with a larger-than-life musical like “Gypsy.” I suspect as the show is performed thru its already extended run at the Arden, it will evolve further. In the meantime, we get to enjoy the evolution of the famous burlesque stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee.