A "Gypsy" You've Never Seen Before

By Brooks Appelbaum

“Gypsy,” running at MTC through September 25, is not only beautifully directed and performed, but the production is original in the finest sense. Unlike the four other professional productions I’ve seen (including those with Tyne Daly and Patti Lupone as Rose, respectively), director Kevin Connors’ vision and version remind us that the musical is an intimate family story about mothers and daughters, and about dreams--not deferred, but pursued part in ignorance, part in defiance, of reality.

The plot, set in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, during the waning days of vaudeville, presents us with an almost perfect example of a musical’s structure, which is not surprising since the book was written by Arthur Laurents, the music by Jule Styne, and the lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim.

Mama Rose (the astonishing Kirsti Carnahan) is determined that her blond “Baby June” (a wonderfully fiery Carissa Massaro) will become a star. Her other daughter, Louise (Kate Simone, who gives a beautifully intelligent and nuanced performance), functions as seamstress, chorus-member, and, in one number, the back end of a cow: in her words, she has no talent. How the supposedly untalented Louise transforms into Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrity stripper who creates a classy, intellectual, and ironic persona and devises an act that is more art form (or what today we would call performance art) than strip, forms the arc of the show; but at the heart of the show lies the relationship between mother and daughter as this transformation occurs.

This heart is what Connors and his actors get so terrifically right from the first moment to the last. MTC is a tiny theater, and “Gypsy” is performed on its thrust stage space, with actors entering and exiting upstage and on either side of the audience. We are close enough to touch them, and when emotions run high -- and with Mama Rose, whether combative or triumphant, emotions are always high -- we can feel the floor shake. Carnahan brings such furious energy and desperation to her biggest numbers, “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and especially, “Mama’s Turn,” that one is almost compelled to look away, except that we don’t want to miss a second of her performance.

In contrast, the gentle Herbie (a lovely Paul Binotto) and Simone’s poignant rendition of “Little Lamb” provide lovely moments of quiet emotion, and Connors makes sure that we enjoy plenty of fun in the humorously horrible acts that Rose devises for June and company, as well as in the nearly show-stopping number, “You Gotta Getta Gimmick,” performed by three strippers instructing Louise in the game. The remarkable trio -- Jodi Stevens (whose other roles demonstrate her versatility), Marca Leigh, and Jeri Kansas -- are all hysterical and superb.

The minimal set (Carl Tallent) and subtle lighting (Michael Blagys) are part of this production’s effective grit and charm, as are the perfect period costumes by Diane Vanderkroef. Becky Timms’ choreography suits the space and Connors’ daring simplicity, and a fine small orchestra backs the singers admirably. Thomas Martin Conroy (who also plays the piano) conducts, with Luke McGuinness on second keyboard, Chris Johnson on drums, and Gary Ruggiero on reeds.

This is a “Gypsy” not to be missed. No matter how many times you’ve seen this show, you will discover a freshly eloquent and deeply moving production at MTC.

Gypsy runs through September 25. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.

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