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Smells Like a Rose

by James Yeara on March 27, 2014

Gypsy: A Musical Fable
Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, choreography by Freddy Ramirez, Capital Repertory Theatre, through April 13


If Shakespeare had written a musical, it would have been Gypsy: A Musical Fable, a play with songs about theater, not a franchise collection of songs with some words between them. Gypsy has soul, and Capital Rep’s artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill once again masterfully plumbs the soul of a classic musical, dusts the fust from it, and creates a singular sensation that is a joy to watch, hear, feel, and think about long after the thunderous curtain call applause stops ringing in your ears. This 1959 musical was so ahead of its time that it didn’t win a single Tony Award that season, but earned its reputation as a legendary musical that has been lauded in subsequent Broadway revivals for the strong performances (Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Patti LuPone all won a Best Actress Tony for their portrayals) of Mama Rose, the monster in the middle of Gypsy.

Kelsey Crouch in Gypsy at Capital Rep

Gypsy’s songs are so sinfully sensational that, earworm alert, to read their titles are to hear them in your mind or to break out singing them: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “Some People,” and the musical’s heart, “Let Me Entertain You.” As the theatrical fable of archetypal stage mother Mama Rose, who sacrifices the souls of her two daughters, blonde “star” June and “no talent” older sister Louise, Gypsy works on multiple levels at Capital Rep: for people who just want to sit and enjoy good singing; people who want a little heart with their music; people who can think while they feel; people who love family dramas; and for some people who demand it all.

Director Mancinelli-Cahill smartly stages Gypsy; while nearly three hours long, the show hums and all is woven together stunningly, so that even the scene changes are integrated into the heart of Gypsy. Freddy Ramiez’s choreography suits the musical, which is rarer than it sounds, but as Gypsy is also the story of Vaudeville, the show within a show allows for dances that are not the simple of the simple “grape vine/jazz hands” variety. So when cast members tap on, or soft-shoe, or waltz, or bump and grind, the scene-change placards–“Don’t Call Us,” “Baby June and Her Newsboys,” “Dreams of Glory, Buffalo”—are not a clunky bit of superfluous business but a fully integrated realization.

This is a Gypsy that dances as well as it sings, and a particular highlight was “All I Need Is the Girl,” which captured the hope and drive of performers, in this case lanky Tulsa (Matt Gibson, following up his excellent Will Parker at Berkshire Theatre Group last July with another energetic performance) trying out both a new dance routine and proposal with Louise (Kelsey Crouch). That the next scene reveals that Tulsa wasn’t interested in Louise at all, but married June and ran off with her, is a motif like heartbeats in Gypsy.

While Mary Callanan as Mama Rose fills the air with notes in the Ethel Merman/Tyne Daly mode, Capital Rep’s production features a cast that are triple threats: They sing, dance (for the most part depending on the part), and, rarer still, act. While kids ensembles usually are the kiss of death—and when one theater owner in Gypsy declared “If there’s anything I hate more than kids, it’s kids onstage,” more than a few audience members chuckled in sympathy at the memories of diabetes-inducing “pay-to-play” children theater—Capital Rep’s urchins, Baby June and Baby Louise (George Franklin, Sophie Elise Meissner, Whitney Wilson, Alexis Papaleo, Amelia Rose Allen) eschew saccharine smiles and flappy jazz hands as substitutes for acting. They stand toe to toe, note to note, and intention to motivation with their older castmates.

And those more seasoned castmates are wonders under Mancinelli-Cahill’s sure touch. While it’s a reviewer’s dodge to run names as a substitute for writing criticism, sometimes, as here, special note needs to be made of a true ensemble performance, for the sum of their parts makes this Gypsy shine: Joe Phillips (playing five different characters, each distinct, worthy of his own review), Tony Pallone, Bob Watson (a heartbreaking Herbert), John T. Wolfe, Connor Russell, Emily Louise Franklin, Cara O’Brien (as teen Louise, who keeps a brave face that almost conceals a broken heart), LoriAnn Freda (doing double, but who found the heart of Tessie the gimmicky stripper), Morgan Przekurat, Heather-Liz Copps, Sara Wolf, Katherine Buddenhagen, Hillary Parker (a hoot as the trumpet-blaring stripper with lips of brass), and Benita Zahn (electrifying).

It is a rare Louise who can wrestle Gypsy away from Mama Rose. But from the opening moment, Crouch is a force to be reckoned with: In another brilliant touch by Mancinelli -Cahill, the adult Louise—bedecked in mink sole, white opera gloves, and diamond-white evening gown—stands near the top of the black wrought-iron spiral staircase stage right and watches her memories of youth play out below her. This is her show, her memories, her life on display. Later Crouch moves from being an observer to a participant, and after her first deer-in-the-headlights baring of her soul while croaking out “Let Me Entertain You” at a filthy Wichita burlesque house, Louise’s concluding divesting of evening gown as the ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee (an H.L. Mencken made-up word for made-up name) makes her metamorphosis complete; wrapping herself in the red velvet act curtain is just the maraschino cherry on this cupcake. It’s a memorable synthesis of actress/role/director, and the best thing is, it’s only one of hundred reasons to see this Gypsy.