Photo by Liz Lauren
Not too many months ago, I stated in a review, “What is amazing about West Side Story is that it is a perfect show.” While I may not be considered an expert in musical theater in the conventional sense, I have seen and directed more musicals than I can count. However, Jack Viertel, who was the senior vice president for 34 years of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters, is an actual expert. In his book The Secret Life of the American Musical, he states, “There’s probably no such thing as a perfect musical, but when fanatics gather to compare notes, the most frequently mentioned candidate is undoubtedly Gypsy.”
I had voraciously consumed Viertel’s book back in January. In it, he breaks down the structure of the American musical, how and why they work, and why some flop. Because of his argument, he frequently comes back to Gypsy to set the example of how a perfect musical should be structured. As I read the book, I kept thinking to myself what a fraud I was. Here I was a musical director and reviewer and yet I had never seen this show. Of course, I knew some of the famed songs such as Let Me Entertain You, You Gotta Get a Gimmick, and Everything’s Coming Up Roses. I also knew it was considered a “female star vehicle” starring such greats over time as Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, Bette Midler, and Patti Lupone. And I knew it was a mother/daughter story about an overbearing showbiz mom.
How had I gotten through decades of musical theater consumption without seeing Gypsy? After seeing the Marriott Lincolnshire’s production, I have some theories, mainly that this is a tough show that can only be consumed by a sophisticated Broadway audience. Is it snobbish to say that, maybe? But as I looked around at the audience, which is easy to do in Mariott’s theater-in-the-round setting, I could tell not everyone was drawn into the show the way I was. But I also knew that I was being drawn exactly because I was absorbing the Broadway greatness as expressed in Viertel’s description of the show.
Why is the show hard for a casual theatergoer to take in? Perhaps because the story is hard to follow without some knowledge of the plot (as evidenced by the synopsis included in the program which is not always the case for musicals at the Marriott). It follows Madame Rose (Lucia Spina) as she tries to launch her daughter, Baby June (Elin Joy Seiler/Tori Heinlein), into a successful vaudeville career. “Vaudeville?” some audience members may ask. This was a type of variety entertainment show popular at the turn of the 20th Century.
This show may also be uncomfortable for the casual theatergoer because it does not have the normal feel-good story one may go to a musical to experience. In fact, even as I was loving experiencing my first production of Gypsy, I found myself feeling uncomfortable through most of the show- as Baby June (Seiler/ Heinlein) and her sister Louise (Milla Liss/ Lauren Maria Medina) grew from children to young adults and yet were still living and being treated as children. I felt uncomfortable as I witnessed the relationship between an overbearing mother and her daughter, specifically Louise who has taken her mother’s focus after June elopes, and thought of my own mother/daughter relationship and those of other mother/daughters I know and the common themes that run throughout. Or maybe the discomfort comes from the fact that the show is actually based on the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the most famous strippers of the early 20th Century. What is more uncomfortable than watching Rose pimp out her own daughter under the delusion that any kind of “star” is better than none, even if Louise is to become the star stripper in the burlesque theater.
Gypsy is a big show about selling show business and it is a hard show to sell. The Marriott offers such a unique theater experience because of the intimate nature of the theater. As an audience member, you can see every expression from the actors, every bead of sweat dripping off of their faces and every audience member sometimes nodding off, sometimes applauding at just the right awkward moment. For this staging of Gypsy, this intimate setting was sometimes a success and sometimes a failure. In such an intimate space, it was easy for Lucia Spina’s powerful voice to fill the room with Madame Rose’s many vocal numbers. And in the last scene, it felt so intimate to watch her unravel in “Rose’s Turn,” that I was equally uncomfortable, sad, and angry for and at her. However, in the moments when Spina wasn’t singing, her acting fell a little flat and I didn’t believe in the power of the Madame Rose she was creating. I wanted the power and manic energy I felt in her songs to come out in Rose’s dialogue, even though as Viertel said in his book “no audience comes to the musicals to listen to dialogue.” However, I wanted Spina’s singing Rose to carry to her acting Rose and it just did not.
The only other character in the show who is equal in power to Rose is her untalented daughter Louise, played by Lauren Maria Medina, who eventually transforms into stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Medina’s Louise was so awkward and uncomfortable throughout the show, that knowing what was coming for Lousie, I was so nervous for Medina pulling it off. However, as the power dynamics start to shift, Medina’s Louise transforms from awkward to strong, powerful, and seductive. How my heart ached by the end when Medina’s Louise says her iconic line to Rose “I thought you did it for me Momma,” but in the very next scene is wrapping her mink stole around her mother’s shoulders and ushering her back to Gypsy Rose Lee’s glamorous party because those mother/daughter bonds are always there, no matter how flawed.
The supporting cast is great. Baby June (Elin Joy Seiler) and Young Louise (Milla Liss) are believable as the younger versions of Heinlen and Medina. Nathaniel Stampley’s Herbie is the perfect supporting Herbie to Spina’s Rose- which is exactly why Herbie leaves in the end. Emily Rohm as Tessie Tura, Leanna Rubin as Electra, and Sawyer Smith as Mazeppa steal the show as the strippers who give advice to Louise in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” And J’Kobe Wallace as Tulsa impresses in the show’s one true “dancy” number. Colette Pollard does well with the strange space she is given at the Marriott, though Vertiel talks in his book about the importance of the title cards announcing the “vaudeville scenes” of the show to give the audience clarity on where they are and that was not always as obvious to me in the Marriott set. However, Theresa Hahn’s costumes capture the time and characters perfectly. The last few scenes of burlesque are especially impressive- remaining tasteful enough for a Marriott audience but with just enough old-timey stripper to tantalize a bit.
So was Vertiel right? Is Gypsy the perfect show? Or am I right? Is it West Side Story? Well, ironically, or not, both shows come from the same creative team with books by Arthur Laurents and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (music has different composers- Jule Styne for Gypsy and Leonard Berstein for West Side Story). I guess like all great art, it should be left for the viewer to decide. I really enjoyed Gypsy. I loved the discomfort. I loved the power shift between Rose and Lousie that twisted in the “structural knot,” as described by Vertiel. I loved the cleverness of the lyrics and the staying power of the music. I loved the history. I would see this show again with the right star (I could only dream of one of Merman, Peters, Midler, or Lupone caliber). But Gypsy is not for everyone. So I will have to let you see this most recent production at the Marriott and decide for yourself.
*Viertel, Jack. The Secret Life of the American Musical : How Broadway Shows Are Built. New York, Sarah Crichton Books, 2016.