City Theater Company's production of Gypsy is an excellent example of accomplishing a lot with a little. No huge cast. No flashy special effects. No gigantic sets. But the relative simplicity of the production is what makes it work. When your actors and musicians are as talented as this, it's best to just let their work speak for itself.
Though the show is called Gypsy in reference to legendary Burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (born Louise), it's really more the story of her mother, Mama Rose, the worst stage mom there ever was. Imagine all the worst qualities of the moms on Toddlers & Tiaras, and roll them all into one overbearing, overdriven person. Then sit back and watch as that person takes all the hopes and goals they had for their own life and tries to achieve them through their children, regardless of whether those kids actually want the same dreams. Now take everything this mother does, and view it through the eyes of one of the children - the book is suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose herself.
Director Michael Gray's vision for the show involves turning Opera Delaware's black box theater into an arena theater with some cabaret seating. The audience surrounds the stage, and the stage surrounds the band, so that the actors don't just encircle the musicians - they frequently interact with them. It's a very immersive experience, and as the actors use the entire space, there's no bad seat in the house (although you might need sunglasses when some of the follow-spots inevitably get pointed directly at you). The theater in the round style also means that there is no set; just some props to help put you in place as needed, with good use of the red curtain on the far end of the theater.
Gray's minimalist approach extends to the cast as well - 25 parts played by just 10 people, with a few parts/lines covered by members of the band. And yet there's rarely any confusion about whether an actor has switched roles. Paul McElwee may be the hardest working man in the show, deftly handling not just the demanding role of Louise's step-father-in-waiting Herbie, but many smaller roles as well, and having to jump back and forth between them all. He brings an endearing humanity to the beat-down love-struck Herbie while also going perfectly over the top in other roles that are best left as a surprise. Kudos also to Zachary Chiero and Emma D. Orr for handling the majority of the other roles in the show, again with very little confusion of when they are a different character.
Mama Rose, meanwhile, has very few endearing qualities. In fact, she's a bit of a train wreck - much as you might want to, you can't look away, waiting to see what horrible thing she'll do to her children next. It's a fine line to walk for an actress, but when it's played with the intensity and drive of Karen Murdock, Mama is all the more enthralling. Murdock makes it easy to see how Mama Rose got swept away in her all-consuming search for fame and celebrity. She sparkles in her more contemplative, down-to-earth moments. Then just when you think Mama might actually realize what a horrendous mother she's been, Murdoch switches gears and returns Mama to her demanding, demeaning personality.
The aging of Mama's daughters - June and Louise - is handled by 3 separate actresses each, sometimes a bit confusingly. Nicole Hemphill and Kieran McCarney, respectively, start the show before seemingly looking into a mirror at their adolescent selves (Jess Nichter and Maura McCarney), who then trade places to show the growth of the characters. Eventually Dylan Geringer and Kerry Kristine McElrone take over as the fully-grown June and Louise (in the wonderfully performed "If Momma Was Married"), but then McCarney reprises her role as Young Louise for a couple more scenes before McElrone fully takes over. I think I get what Gray was going for with those switches, but it was still a bit strange.
Regardless of the changes in actresses, McElrone's transformation from Louise into Gypsy Rose is portrayed with impressive grace. From being the beat-down "plain" sister of Mama's favorite June, to suddenly becoming Mama's favorite target, McElrone shines as a young woman developing a backbone, finding a way to be her own person, and finally standing up to Mama and for herself. Louise's emotions run the gamut over the course of the show, and McElrone never misses a beat.
Not surprisingly, music director Joe Trainor does his usual excellent job of keeping his orchestra tight and tuned. In a show where the band is almost as big as the cast and technically even more center stage, it would be easy to lose the actors to the music. But it's never a concern, and it's a delight to see Joe and other musicians getting to have some fun with the actors as well.
There are a few issues that pull you out of the CTC Gypsy experience, most notably the use of the main theater door as an entrance point for the actors. On a chilly December night, seated right next to the door, I spent a good chunk of the performance shivering in my jacket every time the door opened. And while I appreciate Gray's minimalist angle in some respects, the approach for sound effects is a bit jarring - specifically, there are none. If a noise can't be created by the band, it is spoken by a disembodied voice through the sound system (ie, "A phone rings." "There is a knock at the door."). But to his credit, Gray has these sound cues presented with the same rapid-fire delivery as the dialog of the show, which helps to keep the pace moving.
Vaudeville may be dead, Burlesque long gone. But City Theater Company's Gypsy is a production that'll stay with you. This reviewer's opinion: go ahead, let them entertain you. Gypsy continues at Opera Delaware's black box theater through December 21st. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.city-theater.org
Posted at 11:41am on December 13, 2013 by Jason Thomas
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