Jenn Thompson is a terrific director for big musicals that need to be loud, fast, and funny. However, she tends to be less successful at finding the heart and subtlety amidst the glitter, as witness her 2018 Oklahoma at the Goodspeed, for instance. Her production of Gypsy, running through Sunday, June 25th, is an odd reversal. The dynamics between a ferocious stage mother—Mamma Rose—and her two daughters, Louise and June, work beautifully, as does the relationship between Rose and her endlessly kind and patient beau, Herbie, and Herbie’s affection for the young girls. However, amidst production numbers that are glitzy at the expense of being meaningful, the family story—which is at the center of Arthur Laurents’ brilliant book, Jule Styne’s fabulous music, and Stephen Sondheim’s incandescent lyrics—sometimes gets lost.
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. Mamma Rose (a terrific Judy McLane) is determined that her blond “Dainty June” (a wonderfully fiery Laura Sky Herman) will become a star. Her other daughter, Louise (Talia Suskauer, who gives a beautifully intelligent and nuanced performance), functions as seamstress, chorus-member, and, in one number, the front half of a cow: in her words, she has no talent. How the supposedly untalented Louise becomes performer Gypsy Rose Lee forms the arc of the show; but at its center lies the relationship between mother and daughter as this transformation occurs.
Thompson has cast these main characters very well, though on the night I saw the show, McLane and the orchestra were not always in sync, and it seemed that the conductor, Adam Souza, was rushing her. McLane’s acting is strong: she looks both literally and figuratively ravenous, and she combines Rose’s furious ambition for her children with a soft sexiness with Herbie that many actors playing the role can’t quite pull off. As Herbie, Philip Hernandez is poignant, loveable, and—as Herbie describes himself—no match for Rose, though they want very different lives. Their two numbers, and “If Mama was Married,” sung longingly by June and Louise, bring out the complexity and warmth that the show needs in order to succeed.
Oddly then, Thompson comes close to sabotaging these strengths in the flashier, funnier numbers by losing track of the truism that comedy is most effective when the people involved aren’t trying to be funny: they are trying to communicate something important to themselves and/or others. One of the most winning numbers in this category is “Mr. Goldstone,” which should be Rose’s joyous affirmation that her dreams really do come true; here, the song seems especially rushed as too many props pile onto props. And it doesn’t help that Geoffrey Wade, who plays Rose’s surly Pop earlier in the show (“You’re not getting 88 cents from me, Rose!” he growls when she asks for money), also plays the benevolent Mr. Goldstone.
Similarly, one of my favorite numbers, “All I Need is A Girl,” is sung and danced well by Michael Starr as Tulsa, one of the boys in Rose’s vaudeville act. The song is most poignant when Tulsa is proudly talking Louise through each dance step and phrase, and she’s trying to hide how love-sick she is. Here, though, he talks and dances out to the audience and the poignance is lost. And the same misstep occurs with “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” in which three ladies of burlesque instruct Louise in the secret of their art: the song is hilarious in proportion to how sincerely they teach. The actors (Valerie Wright, Romelda Teron Benjamin, and Victoria Huston-Elem) are fun, but their connection with Louise is tenuous at best. And it makes no sense that, towards the end of the number, the burlesque dressing room slides away, the final stanza is sung straight out to us, and bright lights illuminate the women—the same bright lights set in an arch within the busy backdrop that twinkle during June’s big vaudeville numbers, Louise’s eventual performances, and “Rose’s Turn,” which has been called a nervous breakdown in song.
That backdrop itself also poses problems: as envisioned by Thompson and set designer Alexander Dodge, it is made up of panels filled with writing, with the arch and its lights becoming visible as needed. Certainly, this show presents the enormous challenge of taking place in numerous locations. But illuminating a panel that indicates that we are in a Chinese restaurant, and then another that tells us that we are at a train station, doesn’t add to the dialogue that makes this information perfectly clear (thank you, Mr. Laurents!). Thus, the busy visuals detract from, rather than add to, each scene.
On another note, Eduardo Sicangco’s costumes beautifully enhance the characters of Rose, June, Herbie, and Louise. However, in line with the above, more is too much in the production numbers. Louise may be a cracker-jack seamstress, but since Gypsy is set during the Depression, one has a difficult time believing in the gorgeous outfits for Dainty June’s numbers or in the high-tech “gimmicks” of the burlesque dancers. However, Patricia Wilcox’s choreography is marvelous; the hair and wig design by Jason P. Hayes and J. Jared Janas is lovely, and every one of the large ensemble triple-threat performers is superb.
As a first introduction to Gypsy, Goodspeed’s production will provide audiences (and particularly young audiences) with “a barrel of fun.” For those of us who have seen it many times before, the main actors will remain warmly in the mind, but the show as a whole may not linger.