Friday, August 14, 2015
The character of Rose in Gypsy, the masterpiece by Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book), is the quintessence of larger-than-life. She's a force of nature, implacable, unstoppable. She is scary.
Sally Mayes, currently playing Rose in the Harbor Lights production on Staten Island, is life-sized. In the scenes in which she and the director acknowledge that fact, her performance is moving and meaningful. In the scenes in which she and the director try to make her seem more forceful through fast talking and frenetic gesticulating, not so much. I would bet that Mayes is capable of a thoroughly credible and satisfying Rose, but here we get an uneven performance that, fortunately, is still worth seeing.
That actually describes the entire production: uneven but worth seeing. Whatever the production's faults, it is still Gypsy--a rinky-tink Gypsy, but Gypsy all the same. The brilliant, heartbreaking, funny, and frightening story of the monster stage mother who was "born too soon and started too late" --and who can't quite comprehend that she and her daughters are separate beings--Gypsy is simply one of the best musicals ever written. Styne's music is thrilling. Sondheim's lyrics remain fresh, heart-breaking, delightful, and surprising on the 12-millionth listening. (Schlepper/Mazeppa and bump it/trumpet are two of the most satisfying rhymes ever written.) His use of irony is perfect. Laurents' book is solid and economical. Together, and of course with added the brilliance of the original director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, these artists alchemized sheer theatrical gold.
While this production is a lesser metal than gold, much of it still shines. The most completely successful number is "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," with all three strippers giving it their impressive all. The tiny, indomitable, hysterical Patti Mariano channels Thelma Ritter as Mazeppa; Kathy Brier brings full-figured raunch to Electra (despite having to twinkle with embarrassingly low-rent, anachronistic lights); and Mimi Quillin provides wonderfully graceful gracelessness as Tessa Tura. Michael Marotta is a solid Herbie, Olivia Fanders and Heidi Friese do well as June, and so do Gianna Romero and Samantha Bruce as Louise/Gypsy.
On the other hand, the direction (Bill Castellino) and choreography (Lisa Gajda and Mary Ann Lamb) are haphazard, with strange pacing, awkward staging, and too many numbers directed at the audience rather than treated as the interactive character songs they are. I'm sure Jerome Robbins isn't bothering to roll over in his grave because of this production, but some of his most brilliant concepts get shoddy treatment here. That the danced, strobe-aided transition from child dancers to older dancers works at all is a testament to his genius.
The sets are too small for the stage and high school level in design and execution. The lighting draws attention to itself in all the wrong ways. The sound is awful, with people's voices going in and out and backstage conversations occasionally audible. A discussion about email doesn't exactly blend with Gypsy's mileu! (On the other hand, a pleasant side effect of this mess was getting to hear part of "If Momma Was Married" unmiked.) The wigs did no one any favors. Greer Vashon's costumes, however, ranged from just right to fabulous; the strippers' costumes were particularly wonderful.
The 10-musician orchestra was valiant but erratic. Under the baton of Donna D’Ermilio, they managed to express much of the excitement of the overture (believed by many people to be the best ever) and did okay with the rest of the score, but some of the musicians were less than top-notch.
The huge auditorium was sparsely populated, and many audience members treated the living human beings working their butts off onstage with complete disrespect. Parents filmed their children; friends chatted; popcorn was chomped on; and kids kicked backs of chairs.
But, yes, I would recommend catching one of three remaining performances anyway. It's a mess, but it's Gypsy!
(press ticket; the equivalent of 12th row center or so)