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Friday, August 4, 2017

Review: Gypsy

Posted By on Fri, Aug 4, 2017 at 10:29 AM

click to enlarge gypsy_1.jpg

Gypsy has been called the quintessential American musical. Based on memoirs composed by the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the eight-Tony Award-winning play is presented this weekend by Tulane Summer Lyric Theater as the final show in its 50th anniversary season.

The blockbuster musical, written by Arthur Laurents with score by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, captures the difficult relationship between a single mother and her two daughters, who were performing vaudeville when variety shows succumbed to burlesque and talking pictures.

While Gypsy is essentially the story of a family struggling to survive on the cutthroat, theater circuit, it also is a portrait of the domineering Mama Rose (Elizabeth Argus), who is determined to make her girls the stars she wanted to be. Baby June, first played by Ellie Bono then by Tatum Ludlum as a teenager, performs the same saccharine song and dance routines year in and year out. Completely focused on promoting her child star, Rose refuses to let any in her troupe celebrate birthdays beyond 10, even when they’ve become young adults.

Rose seduces a traveling candy salesman, Herbie (Bob Edes, Jr.), convincing him to become their talent agent. Herbie wants to marry Rose — not book the act — but goes along with her plan. Laurents' script takes poetic license with the probable facts, providing fodder for humorous episodes. When Rose decides her troupe needs male dancers, she abducts boys standing by the side of the road. She relegates June’s plain sister Louise to wearing a spotted cow costume in a new act where June bids goodbye to the farm in search of bright lights. Rose’s routines are kitschy, with silly costumes and clunky choreography, and always climax with June dropping to the floor in splits.

Creative sets by David Raphel give the stage polished, artistic appeal, and strobe lights  provide cover to swap out younger cast members for teens.

It would be difficult to match the performance of Ethel Merman, who originated the role of Rose on Broadway. Argus instead portrays a softer, less abrasive stage mother, clinging to delusional ambitions for her hackneyed stage acts. Singing in half of the numbers and remaining onstage for most of the play, her controlling presence dominates every scene. After having three husbands leave her, she is offered a steadying influence in Herbie, who recognizes family as more important than fame. Touching moments feature Herbie and Rose embracing and gently scolding, “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.”

Unforgettable songs composed by Jules Styne and Sondheim include “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “Small World,” performed with profound feeling to breathtaking orchestral accompaniment conducted by Leonard Raybon. The sisters sing a poignant duet about their longing for more traditional family life in “If Momma Was Married.”

Meredith Owens miraculously transforms herself from meek, backup singer to burlesque queen who ultimately pushes her mother aside, forcing Rose to fulfill her own ambitions to get the attention she craves.

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