At first sight, GYPSY, the legendary Sondheim Broadway musical, seems like an odd choice for City Theater Company. CTC is small and edgy, GYPSY is big and traditional. Look closer at GYPSY, though, and it starts to make sense. The Broadway show that opened in 1959 with Ethel Merman in the lead role, with famous songs like “Let Me Entertain You” and “Together, Wherever We Go” may seem old-fashioned, but it’s actually dark, randy and, yes, edgy — a surprisingly natural fit for “Delaware’s Off-Broadway.” Deconstructed and put on as minimalist, unconventional theater-in-the-round, CTC’s version is something all new.
One of the exciting things about CTC is not knowing how the theater in OperaDelaware’s tiny Black Box will be set up. Will the seating be on one side of the room or the other — or will there be seating all around the room, with the performers utilizing the center space? For GYPSY, under the direction of Michael Gray, the setup is something entirely different: two rows (yes, just two rows) of benches line the four walls of the space, with a central stage that surrounds a 7-piece orchestra pit. Putting the orchestra, with Music Director Joe Trainor as Conductor, in the middle of it all seems like a risk, but it works beautifully, with no issues with hearing the (mic’d) actors or being distracted by the band. In fact, the musicians blend so seamlessly that they actually play minor characters with lines from their seats at times.
With just ten actors, four of them playing younger versions of two main characters, CTC, as they often do, pushes multiple-role parts to the limit. Paul McElwee, Zachary Chiero, and Emma D. Orr play five roles each, performing each one with striking individuality. Dylan Geringer — always a scene-stealer — plays three: Gypsy’s sister June, snarky stripper Tessie Tura, and vaudeville auditioner Arnold. As Louise (aka Gypsy), Kerry Kristine McElrone nails the transition from sweet, awkward, emotionally abused young woman to confident, beautiful burlesque superstar Gyspy Rose Lee. McElrone and Geringer have a special chemistry — though they’re not on stage together often, their version of “If Mama was Married” elevates a relatively minor scene to one of the show’s most memorable moments.
But, of course, GYPSY is all about Mama Rose, the role made famous by Merman. It’s a big, complex role, one suited perfectly for veteran Delaware stage actor Karen Murdock. As soon as she enters the stage as the infamously overbearing stage mom, you know: the size of the stage and the elaborateness of the sets don’t matter. With the right performers, you can pull off a grand-scale Broadway show in a (Black) Box.
The experience is like nothing else CTC has done — but then, the same can be said for many of the company’s productions. This isn’t a company that shies away from a challenge. If you’ve been curious about Wilmington’s little “alternative” theater, GYPSY would be a great introduction.
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