By James V. Ruocco
"I made you! And do you wanna know why? You wanna know what I did it for? Because I was born too soon and started too late, that's why!
With a dash of glitter, a follow spot and enough hubris to taunt, tease and cajole, Castle Craig Players does exactly that with its edgy, unflinching, dazzling tale of a gusty stage mom who thrusts her children into the spotlight completely unaware that the entertainment world has changed and what she's peddling doesn't necessarily work anymore.
In this revival, Rose - blinded by the fact that time has marched on - plunges forward insisting dreams are meant to be followed, no matter how big or how small as long as her children become stars. That's STAR, of course, in bold, capital letters.
Loosely based on the early life of Rose Thompson Hovick, Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc as they roamed the country "like gypsies" in search of fame and fortune along the vaudeville circuit of America, "Gypsy" takes it cue from Arthur Laurents' innovative blueprint and emerges a straight-up tale of tragedy and success, chock full of show biz allure, ambition, heartache and struggle,.
At Castle Craig, Ian Galligan has staged several musicals including "Company," "Hello, Dolly!" "Grey Gardens," "The Winter Wonderettes," "Cabaret," "The Sound of Music" and "The Drowsy Chaperone." An actor as well, Galligan brings a whirlwind angst and restlessness to his "Gypsy" along with a remarkable sense of style, spirit and chutzpah that drives the musical forward with an irresistible fizz and snap that befits the anticipatory excitement of the show itself, its brilliant music and its colorful, familiar characters.
As director, he goes the "Follies" route with a cleverly orchestrated opening number that finds the adult Gypsy Rose Lee remembering her life with memories that not only bring her face to face with her younger self (a very powerful moment, indeed) but time marching through the years, framed by the music of the show's exhilarating "Overture." It's a creative conceit that works splendidly under Galligan's tutelage and one that is marked by real, raw theatrical savvy, intuition and scrapbook determinations and delusions. It also thrusts the audience head first into the story that follows.
"Gypsy," by all accounts, is a big, splashy musical.
But Galligan, is never once daunted by the show's size. Given Castle Craig's small, intimate space, he crafts a very personal piece, marked by a very close association between actor and audience. He uses only minimal scenery and set pieces and concentrates instead on the dynamics of the story, the characters, the dialogue and the show's recurring themes and story arcs. This interpretation is also fueled with a finely calibrated appeal, vision, darkness and confidence that serves the material well. And the ending - "Rose's Turn" - is more than just a showstopper for the show's leading lady. Galligan turns it into an angst-ridden soliloquy of guilt, grandeur and deception about a star stuck mom who has lost the plot, lost her children and is fighting for a comeback. Wow! Yes, indeed.
With music by Jule Style and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical score for "Gypsy" tears through one classic song after another with plenty of showstoppers along the way. The songbook itself includes 18 musical numbers. They are "May We Entertain You," "Some People," "Some People (Reprise)," "Small World," "Baby June and Her Newsboys," "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You," "Little Lamb," "You'll Never Get Away From Me," "Dainty June and her Farmboys," "Broadway," "If Momma Was Married," "All I Need Now Is the Girl," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Madame Roses Toreadorables," "Together, Wherever We Go," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," "Let Me Entertain You" and Rose's Turn."
Sondheim's lyrics - witty, elegant, driven, intricate - mixed magnificently with Styne's music - melodic, unpretentious, tuneful - give "Gypsy" its sonic, rhythmic life. Musical director Chris Coffey makes "Gypsy's" breezy and expressive demands seem easy as he and his six-member band tackle the invigorating score with enthusement, swagger, persuasiveness and 1950's Broadway melodrama. It's music making shaped with a mercurial freshness and melancholy with energy and love in every bar.
Making her Castle Craig Players debut as choreographer, Erin Coffey delivers inspired, upbeat, smart choreographic movements, patterns and couplings reflective of Broadway's golden age. With musical numbers that include "Dainty June and Her Newsboys," "Broadway," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and "All I Need Now Is the Girl," she transports her audience back in time to the forgotten vaudeville and burlesque houses of yesteryear, showing an extensive, emotional range of camp, swirl, dazzle, charm and dynamic. All of this is done with an honesty and justice that complements the "Gypsy" story, its music and libretto and its manically driven tale of thwarted ambitions, overnight success and faded dreams.
It's the killer role of the American Broadway musical and Lauren Linn, as the power-hungry, big-voiced Rose Thompson Hovick, inhabits the part with the snap, snarl, snare and delusional gusto it demands from the very first moment she shouts "Sing out, Louise, sing out" from the back of the theater and starts walking up the aisle and onto the stage balking at her eldest daughter's terrible audition pushing everyone out of her way and thrusting Baby June, the talented one, into the spotlight so that one day she can headline the Orpheum Circuit. It's one of those theatrical moments that theatergoers crave and one that Linn essays like a crazed stage mother ("a brassy virago," says the real June Havoc) about to explode or cut the throat of anyone who denies access to the gateways of her show business dreams.
Bold, brazen and often terrifying, this role is a hurricane of desperation and pathos with Linn developing and reproducing it, channeling the right savvy, dynamic and triumph it demands.
Then, there's the music. Linn's vocal skill is such where she can brassily belt out a song and sing it loudly and incredibly - the way it was meant to be performed - without shattering a champagne glass or two. At the same time, she can transition to soft, tender-hearted vocal tones that come alive with intimate, effortless conviction. Here, she gets eight different songs, including "Everything's Coming Up Roses" "Small World," "Rose's Turn" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me." Whatever the number, she makes the audience feel what Rose is going through, splendidly conveying the intended meaning behind every lyric.
In the role of Rose's daughter Louise, the young girl who eventually becomes the celebrated Gypsy Rose Lee, Voni Kengla naturally charts the character's growth from untalented child star and shy teenager to egomaniacal burlesque queen with the tremendous passion, conviction, mindset and allure the part calls for. It's a role that is the centerpiece of the musical and one the actress plays in an exhilarating, believable fashion as the "Gypsy" story unravels and entertains, musically and dramatically. Vocally, she brings truth, resonance and spark to her many vocals which include "Little Lamb," "Let Me Entertain You," "Together, Wherever, We Go" and "If Momma Was Married," her playful duet with Dainty June about a fantasy life with a mother who gave us show business for marriage.
The plum role of Dainty June, the young vaudeville star who would grow up to become stage and screen star June Havoc is played in this production by the tremendously talented Chelsea Dacey whose portrayal of this iconic character is as powerful as Ann Jillian's was in the 1962 film adaptation, Kate Reinders in the 2003 Broadway revival and Leigh Ann Larkin in the 2008 incarnation that cast Patti LuPone as Rose. What's remarkable about Dacey's work here is that she finds new ways to interpret and express the character adding more color, more nuance, more shading and more personality to this important part. This June is sweet and bubbly on the surface, but underneath she knows that her mother's showbiz ideas are terrible, the act she is forced to perform in is hideous and if she doesn't pack her bags and run - escape that is - she's going to be swallowed up whole. It's a conceit the actress chillingly and achingly conveys (she channels the real-life June Havoc's true feelings about show biz and the "Gypsy" story) until, for story purposes, she elopes with a male dancer from her act.
Dacey also has the vocal chops to bring Broadway style range and delivery to June's musical numbers, which include "If Momma Was Married," "Dainty June and Her Newsboys" and "Broadway." Here, as in the recent "The Winter Wonderettes," also performed at Castle Craig, the actress/singer knows how to achieve the maximum value of the material she is asked to perform, how to hold the audience in the palm of her hand and how to make it real and natural in the truest sense. That fiercely personal perspective is impossible to resist.
Often in productions of "Gypsy," the character of Herbie, Rose's lover and vaudeville act agent for her children, either gets lost in the translation or is wrong played as a second banana. Not so at Castle Craig. Bill Rodman charts Herbie's role in the "Gypsy" story with charm, charisma, assured support and admirable skill. He's not only the best Herbie community theater has seen in the last decade or two, but one that is extremely likeable and seasoned game for Lauren Linn's forceful Rose Hovick. Vocally he's in fine voice, most evident in "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me," (his duets with Rose) and the thoroughly engaging "Together, Wherever Me Go," performed alongside Rose and Louise.
Lisa DeAngelis, last seen in The Orange Player's enjoyable revival of Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party" is cast in the dual roles of Ms. Cratchitt and burlesque performer Electra. As Ms. Cratchitt, an important show business secretary as Grantzigler's Palace who loathes small-time vaudeville acts with children and hates pushy stage mothers, DeAngelis shifts amusingly between contempt and outspokenness, then returns in Act II for yet another comic go-round as a no-talented stripper whose gimmick is flashing lightbulbs. She excels at both and musically, gets to strut her stuff in the showstopping "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" with Mazeppa and Tessie Tura, two burlesque queens played with dizzying crassness and diva-like naughtiness by the very talented Marsha Howard Karp and Kathy Wade.
It's a musical that will never go out of style. And "Gypsy," Ian Galligan's engaging incarnation of this classic showbiz tale about stardom and its addictive delusions of grandeur, brims with charm, wit, menace and pathos. The music has the power to still thrill and surprise. The performances are amazingly committed. And at a time when everyone else seems to be doing "Mamma Mia!" "Cabaret," "Into the Woods" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," this oft-told tale of a mother born into the wrong generation, is a very welcome, inviting diversion.
"Gypsy" is being staged by Castle Craig Players (Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse (59 W. Main St., Meriden, CT), now through August 10.
For tickets or more information, call (800) 838-3006.