Saturday, March 25, 2017

Vicki Lewis Triumphs in Gypsy at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre

We all know the story and most have seen both the play and the movie Gypsy about the struggle of an obsessed stage mother driving her youngest daughter's rise to fame during the fading years of vaudeville.  For me, there were three reasons to see this show yet again: the music of Jule Styne, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the character driven roles created by Arthur Laurents who mined the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee when creating the story.

Even with these attributes, how does one breathe new life into the well known story?  There is of course the Maltz theatre’s reliable skill of handling musicals, but in the case of this Gypsy there is also the powerhouse of a performer, Vicki Lewis, who plays Rose on steroids.  Her portrayal alone is worth revisiting Gypsy, along with an exceptional supporting cast.  But when Lewis is on stage, she is a force of nature, self deluded by her unrealistic ambition for her daughters, only to rise out of the ashes of self destruction with the colossal closing number “Rose’s Turn.”  On the other hand she keeps the audience feeling distressed by her constant manipulations only to have our hearts go out to her, again and again. 

Celebrated stage, screen and television actress Vicki Lewis stars as Rose
This is a woman with many losses in her life, her own mother and several husbands, then June, the daughter she grooms for stardom, played with wide-eyed innocence by Jillian Van Niel, and then the man who stood by her, Herbie, flawlessly performed by John Scherer (seen previously at the Theatre in La Cage aux Folles, Annie and They're Playing Our Song, as well as on Broadway).  Ultimately, we grieve as much for Herbie, another casualty of Rose’s delusions.

Emma Stratton stars as Louise (Gypsy Rose Lee)
We watch the transformation of talented Emma Stratton as Louise (whose national tour credits include Bullets Over Broadway and Anything Goes), from the ungraceful neglected child into the great Gypsy Rose Lee, an accident of Herbie booking the troupe at a burlesque theater.  There we meet three of the most unlikely caricatures of burlesque performers, who belt out one of my favorite songs, so typical Sondheim in its word play, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

There are so many people to mention, but a special call out to Brett Thiele who plays Tulsa, whose dance and song solo with Louise looking on in an alley behind a theatre is reminiscent of a Gene Kelly routine, singing one of my other favorites, “All I Need is the Girl.”  It is at this moment that a “performance gene” is awakened in Louise, not to mention the spark of love.  But Tulsa eventually takes June for his own now leaving Rose with her overlooked daughter, Louise, a new project to mold into stardom.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, whose work on revivals, new musicals, and plays has been seen throughout the world, directed and choreographed the Maltz production.  There is a very effective, moving scene where Rose’s troupe of child performers meld into adults in an instant, still singing and performing the same old routines.  Be prepared to be wowed by the conceit.  She said the following about Gypsy: “I’m drawn to stories that illuminate the human condition: stories about families; flawed characters with strong ambitions and giant dreams.”  And, indeed, that is what the show is all about.

Gypsy is the show where Sondheim felt he finally came into his own and experienced a liberating freedom in writing the lyrics.  He further acknowledged that the music by Jule Styne “supplied the atmosphere of both the milieu and of the musical theatre itself.”  It was one of the last musicals for which Sondheim was merely the lyricist but you get the sense he was learning the musical treatment from a master, saying “Jule’s score was redolent of not only vaudeville and burlesque but of the old fashioned, straightforward, character-driven musical play…of which Gypsy was one of the last examples and probably the best.”

The list of memorable songs is endless from this musical.  In addition to the ones I already mentioned, “Let Me Entertain You.” “Some People,” “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” “If Momma Was Married” (another personal favorite, so vintage Sondheim), “Everything is Coming Up Roses,” and “Let Me Entertain You,” plus others!

Although frequently performed, and indelibly etched in our memories from the film, here is a refreshing revisit, made particularly memorable by Vicki Lewis’ performance.  The show is playing at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre until April 9.

Pictured from left to right: Atsuhisa Shinomiya, Johnson Brock, Neville Braithwaite, Steve Carroll, Vicki Lewis (above), Jillian Van Niel (below), John Scherer and Bret Thiele. All stage photos by Alicia Donelan