I was not surprised to see that City Theater Company ( http://city-theater.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=1626 ) in Wilmington, Delaware, had a fresh and inspired take on the classic American musical GYPSY. While this is perhaps the oldest musical they have ever done, it does have Stephen Sondheim lyrics, so you knew CTC would want to do the show if for only that reason. But in the program notes Michael Gray lists it as one of his favorite shows and one that they dreamed up after at first thinking it couldn’t be done in the intimate black box space of Opera Delaware studios. His solution to the challenge of staging a “Big” show in a small space is to radically simplify the staging in many ways, and to give a small cast of actors an incredibly challenging number of roles. Well, I loved the staging and it caused me to think about the show in many new ways. I wish Sondheim would come see it. I think he would be thrilled by the daring and crazy-talented cast and by the musical and dramatic efforts of Michael Gray as director and Joe Trainor as music director (and Dawn Morningstar’s choreography as well, which makes the most of the small spaces). The costumes were as always a delight, thanks to the behind the scenes work of Kerry Kristine McElrone and Lauren Peters.
The actors who get to play just one role are the ones who immediately jump to mind today, a few days after seeing a rather lightly attended sleety cold Saturday night show. Kerry Kristine McElrone gives us a Louise who pops up bit by bit as a “replacement” for Louise 2, the teenager. Having 3 different Louises was an intriguing concept, they are (all 3) on stage a few times. At first I was confused by the shift back to the younger Louise a few times, thinking perhaps it was purely for costume changes, but over time I felt like it gave the character a chance to develop in fits and starts, like a butterfly gradually coming out of its cocoon. When McElrone finally took over as Louise she remained the buttoned up girl of her teens, but now less and less willing to submit to her domineering mother (more about her soon!). And Louise’s big number where she finally becomes her own very different creation is wonderfully fun; this Louise has had enough of being told what to do (and now will show us her stuff – hey you gotta go see this show yourself, enough of the play by plays here!). Another great moment for Louise is the number If Momma Was Married where Dylan Geringer (in one of her 35 parts!) as grown up June and our grown up Louise take a song which can sound wistful and “Matchmaker”-like sometimes, and give it an edge of anger, and killer harmonies that made it surprisingly affecting. The clear anger and resentment shown at times by Louise and June adds great edge to numbers that don’t usually feel that edgy in my recollection. In Together, where Momma Rose tries to bring Herbie and Louise back on board (when things seem to be going south), you can see the song more as a mini play where Momma Rose shows her spirit once again and manages to bring her quite exasperated, fraying family back around to her way of doing things, perhaps for just one last time.
Which brings us to the center of attention in GYPSY, and that is, of course, Momma Rose. This is a very difficult role. At the show (in a discussion with a friend who was selling tickets) I was describing it as an anti-hero, a sort of Don Draper of musical comedy, someone who is domineering and hurtful at times, but who also has an amazing passion for what they do, driven by something deep. The character still is hard to love, not a great mother, not a great stage mother, and not a great wife, you might say! But somehow we stay with Tony Soprano or Draper or Heisenberg because there is depth to the portrayal. Karen Murdock digs deep into this role, and by the end of the show, while we may not love Rose, we can see where she has come from, we can see the depths of her need for attention and the way she has turned that on her children in destructive ways. In the end she has driven her daughter to reach heights that were pretty impressive, no matter what you might think of this kind of show business life. The big scene for Momma Rose is Rose’s Turn, and it was beautifully staged…it felt right to me. Murdock sang as if her life depended on it, and she sounded fabulous. I came away from the show wondering how soon I could produce a CTC cabaret in Arden to showcase these actors to a different audience.
So clearly, I loved the show and focused on two actors, who I actually have known for years (full disclosure) and have even acted with (yes, I walked Karen as Evita across the WDL stage as my two little girls looked on from the chorus).
This rather long review must continue so I can mention the other fine actors in the cast: the amazing young Baby June who kicks up a storm and shows great enthusiasm, the other child actors are also very good. Paul McElwee does a standout job as Herbie, though he was perhaps a little too good looking for the part – but his character was right, showing deep affection for Rose and connecting very well with her kids. That he was also able to play three or more roles including one showstopping drag part is testament to his flexibility and skill. Emma Orr and Dylan Geringer also played many parts, each very funny and inspired, many of their moments were laugh-out-loud great. Zachary Chiero showed great dancing and comic chops in another 55 roles.
I was glad to hear that the Sunday matinee of GYPSY sold out, and I certainly hope that this deserving show gets 3 more sold out nights as the snow is melting and it is warming up! Go see it Thursday, Friday or Saturday night at 8 PM. Oh, and did I tell you I got to be in the show for a brief moment of … uh, glory? Is that why I liked it? Actually I will have to give myself only a lukewarm review: you needed to have a gimmick, Ron! Thanks again to all involved in GYPSY!
Book by Arthur Laurent
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Michael Gray
Music Direction by Joe Trainor
December 6 – 21, 2013
City Theater Company
4 South Poplar Street
Wilmington DE 19801