The venerable Montclair Operetta Club has been around for over 85 years, presenting a wide variety of musical productions from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to blockbuster Broadway musicals like Titanic. Therefore, it was a bit disappointing to witness the rather ragged production of Gypsy that opened at the Westminster Arts Center on April 8.
The production looks like it could have had a few more technical rehearsals, for the lighting was erratic (the spots were often not where they should have been) and the sound level was inconsistent. However, because this organization is adept at production, I expect the kinks should be ironed out by the next performance or two.
This does not mean that you shouldn't go to see Gypsy, one of the greatest musicals about show biz. Jule Styne's melodies and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics remain as hummable, toe-tapping and clever as ever, and the three leads sing and perform them with aplomb.
Briefly, Gypsy recounts the childhood and coming of age of Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the most famous strippers ever to strut the stage. Shepherded by their stage-mother-from-hell Rose, the two Hovick sisters, June and Louise, performed a cheesy routine on vaudeville stages around the country until June leaves to pursue her own dreams. Left with just Louise—whom she has dubbed a “no-talent”—Rose takes another tack, grooming her daughter to be a stripper. When Louise goes at this latest incarnation with a vengeance and crafts her own "shtick," Rose finds herself alone, facing the death of her own dreams.
Veteran director Bob Cline's helming of Gypsy lacks his usual crispness. With multiple scene changes, the pace, at times, feels a bit poky, and the show clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes. Gonzalo Valencia's musical direction serves the score quite well, and he elicits terrific vocal performances from the principals.
From the minute she hijacks the audition and stares down Uncle Jocko, Bianca Sutlovich's Rose is a force of nature to be reckoned with, or as Louise says, "A pioneer woman without a frontier." She belts out Rose's anthem, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," and duets beautifully with agent-to-be Herbie in "Small World," but she is often ahead of the orchestra, which can be disconcerting. However, in "Rose's Turn," she turns up the volume and energy, and together with the orchestra gives us a view of a woman who never "made it," who never had her turn at success, and turns her into a more sympathetic character. I have one quibble: Rose is supposed to come from Seattle (we see her there with her father), so why does Sutlovich deliver her lines with a decided New York accent?
As foil to Sutlovich's single-minded ambition, Richard Colonna (above) portrays a very lovable, patient Herbie. In fact, it's rather obvious that he provides the girls with the love and care they need from their mother but which she is unable (or unwilling) to give. Colonna's voice is well-suited to his two duets with Rose and the threesome with Rose and Louise. We really root for Rose to marry this guy but are not surprised when he finally walks out. In fact, we want to applaud Colonna for finally giving Herbie a backbone!
And as the teenage Louise, Jacqueline Taylor (left) conveys the bruised ego of a neglected (and mentally abused) child, with a wavering voice and shy demeanor. Unfortunately, when she finally nails her own identity, her voice still did not project loud enough, and she seems to be more involved with her costume than with projecting an attitude.
The large cast (30 in all) includes several other actors who should be singled out for honorable mention. Although he has but one song ("All I Really Need Is the Girl"), Karl Hammerle as Tulsa (with Taylor at right) shows that he has the vocal and dance skills to be a star. Allison Acquafredda does a fine job with the thankless role of June, reduced to dressing and sounding like a ten year old when she's long passed that age. Jen Hanselman's stripper Tessie Tura (left) is all business; as the other two strippers, Roseann Ruggiero (Mazzeppa) and Malikia Cee (Electra) strut around the stage and bump/grind respectably, although the latter is too covered up to look really sexy.
Given the economic downturn (and the difficult position in which most theaters find themselves at this juncture), Director Cline has eschewed an elaborate set in favor of a bunch of portable props, but the production doesn't suffer for it. This way, we are forced to focus on the characters and the actors who portray them. Barbi McGuire and Jen Hanselman have assembled a terrific wardrobe of costumes appropriate for each situation and character.
This year is Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday; to celebrate, Montclair Operetta Club Musical Theatre has presented Company and Gypsy. Why not come to the party to join the festivities? I am sure that after the opening night performance, the troupe will coalesce to present an entertaining show where "everything's coming up roses."
Gypsy will be performed at the Westminster Arts Center, Franklin and Fremont Streets, in Bloomfield Fridays and Saturdays, April 8 through 16, at 8 PM and Sundays, April 10 and 17, at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.744.3133 or online at http://www.boxofficetickets.com/mocmusicals.
Listen to an interview on the Leonard Lopate Show (Jan. 6, 2011) with Karen Abbot about her book, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee HERE.
More info about Gypsy Rose Lee at Karen Abbott’s website.