A freight train roared across the stage of the Little Theatre on opening night last week. That train is commonly known as “Gypsy”, an American Musical Classic. It’s currently enjoying a successful production by Farmers Alley Theatre.
Not the least of the reasons for the success of this show is a big, bold, brassy female lead. Mary Jo Mecca delivers a spirited and nuanced performance at the head of this powerful train of a musical. Mecca’s portrayal of Rose, the prototypical stage mother, is captivating because she displays a full vocal and emotional range in speech and song.
She also exhibits a full arsenal of weaponry in her battle to insure stardom for her daughters on the vaudeville stage. She is, in short, a master manipulator. This makes Rose both fun and at times scary to watch. Mecca’s Rose can be buttery smooth and seductive as she enlists Herbie, sympathetically played by Michael Ehlers, as agent and potential husband in the romantic number “Small World”. Ehlers’ strong support contributes to Mecca’s success.
Ehlers is an actor who listens, reacts and gives as good as he gets on stage. In addition to possessing the soft touch, Mecca’s character, through numbers such as “Some People”, can threaten, cajole or steam roll those in her way and that includes theatre owners, stagehands or even family members.
Her Rose can also articulate a vision inspiring those who ride her train. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is an example, though it’s about more than inspiration. After an uncharacteristic stage silence for Rose, this song reveals the desperation for notice that gnaws at the soul of this complex character. Kathy Mulay’s competent direction keeps this train squarely on track.
In a large cast musical it’s the small moments that establish intimacy and connection among characters. Mulay’s production includes physical details like Roses’s slight hike of a hemline for Herbie, Louise’s awakening upon the gentle bump of a man’s fist on her shoulder, or the lingering grasp of extended fingers that signal Herbie’s goodbye to Rose.
An important car on the “Gypsy” vaudeville train across America is the troupe of younger performers enlisted for this show. A talented supporting ensemble of children executed the period numbers with energy and flair. The movement, dance, and costumes for Baby June and Her Newsboys had an appropriate level of corniness and cuteness to be both entertaining and indicative of the stage mother pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Although numerous set changes in “Gypsy” can present challenges, Kristen Martino’s colorful, clever set pieces allowed rapid scene shifts. Her design also supported the coast to coast journey of a stage family seeking new material and audiences. The travels along the way are enlivened by the choreography of Melissa Sparks. Carver Duncan, as Tulsa, is a standout as he narrates, builds and performs a sparkling soft shoe routine.
“Gypsy” would not be complete without the behind-the-scene demonstration of strippers Tessie Tura (Bridgette Sitarski), Mazeppa (Mary Teutsch) and Electra (Sandra Bremer). Supported by Mulay’s costumes and equipped with gladiatorial gear, lighting effects and swinging bejeweled tassels, the trio bump and grind their way through the hilarious “You Gotta Get A Gimmick”.
A final challenge met by this production is the title role. Rose’s oldest daughter, Louise, must support the action during Act I, then undergo a rapid shift and take center stage in Act II. Although this could be a largely thankless task, Stephanie Maloney captures our interest and sympathies throughout as she goes from duckling to beautiful swan.
Early in the show she quietly acquiesces to the needs of her mother and sister June, by portraying Louise with a bent posture and reserved demeanor. Driven by needs of the family budget, however, Louise dons long white gloves, a boa, a long dress and bares her shoulders to become the legendary stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. Her posture improves and her demeanor comes alive on the burlesque stage as she meets the catalyst she has awaited all her life: a friendly male audience.
The true test of this transition, however, lies in the confrontation at the end. Maloney held her own in a volatile dressing room standoff with a formidable opponent, her mother, Rose. Then following Mary Jo Mecca’s rapid-fire, gut-wrenching finale, “Rose’s Turn”, Maloney shares a moving reconciliation with the woman who gave her birth and helped make her a star.
In the end, this freight train behaves more like an emotional roller coaster. In either case, audiences will likely find a lot to entertain them and much to like, in “Gypsy”.