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Review: ‘Gypsy’ coming up roses at Marriott Theatre

Writing a review of “Gypsy,” aka “the mother of all musicals,” currently running at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, was a difficult task for me.

Many years ago, I played Rose on the stage of the Woodstock Opera House, and from then on every production I saw – from the Bette Midler TV movie to any live theater run – resulted in threats to tie me down in my seat so I’d refrain from belting out those lyrics and saying those infamous lines.

The 1959 Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim musical is considered one of Broadway’s all-time triumphs. It was an instant classic: “the jewel of Broadway’s Golden Age.”

Reviewer Frank Rich wrote that “‘Gypsy’ is nothing if not Broadway’s own brassy and unlikely answer to ‘King Lear.’” The musical is a true story based on burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoir. As directed by Amanda Dehnert, this Marriott production is a nonstop, vivid, dazzling display featuring a very talented cast of 27 (including a well-behaved real dog).

The nine-piece orchestra is conducted by Brad Haak; the production is under the musical direction of Ryan T. Nelson. You will recognize those dynamic numbers: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” and “Together Wherever We Go,” to mention a few.

Theater-in-the-round can be complex for blocking and sight lines; “Gypsy” usually plays best on the proscenium stage, but Dehnert’s blocking and scene pacing are both creative and clever, carried out by actors so flawlessly that there are no distractions. Kudos to stage manager Jessica Banaszak for making it all run so smoothly. And every aspect from Jesse Klug’s lighting design to Collette Pollard’s scenic design to Michael Daly’s sound design also highlight the full force of theatrical display on that stage.

Stephanie Klemons’ choreography is energetic, elegant and expressive. One doesn’t want the numbers to end – as with Baby June’s tribute to Uncle Sam and the transition to the older cast, the Broadway tap with the “boys” in tuxes and tall hats, and the show stealer “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Theresa Ham’s costumes are impressive, and indicate quite clearly who the characters are.

As the overture envelopes you, “Gypsy” opens with a marvelous and poignant scene of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee silently reliving her past as the entire cast surrounds her and then disappears when the two-act musical slips back in time to auditions for the Uncle Jocko kiddie show. “Gypsy” is a tale of perseverance, love and the glory of performing during the fading days of the touring vaudeville circuit. It is also the tale of two exceptional women – a mother and daughter – and the pursuit of dreams.

The superb Lucia Spina is Mama Rose. Sondheim called Rose “a showbiz Oedipus,” and most recognize Rose as a bulldozer of a role. Spina follows in the footsteps of Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Patti LuPone and Angela Lansbury in the complex part. Her Rose is vivacious, single-minded, obsessive, plucky, pushy, intelligent and a very charming stage mother. The character Herbie describes Rose as “looking like a pioneer woman without a frontier.” Spina’s Rose lives through her daughters, specifically June; she is wrapped in self-delusion and hungering for the limelight herself. Spina’s vocal prowess – powerful and electrifying as evidenced first in her delivery of “Some People” – never stops. Spina’s “Rose’s Turn” (the heartbreakingly honest 11 o’clock song) was met with wild enthusiasm.

Nathaniel Stampley is a tall, debonair, expressive actor portraying the role of Herbie, the former theater agent now candy salesman and faithful companion to Rose. Stampley is a gentlemanly Herbie with a big heart; he is strong in his character delivery, and I wish he sang more in the show. He broke my heart in the scene of Louise’s future being commandeered by Rose.

A show-stealing trio of burlesque strippers provides much comic relief with their impromptu lesson for Louise in how to sell an act in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Emily Rohm is Tessie Tura, the past-her-prime ballerina (“wait till you refine it”), Leeanna Rubin is Electra, ditzy but illuminating with her light switch abilities, and Sawyer Smith, with legs that go on forever, is Mazeppa (“bump it with a trumpet,” which, by the way, is played quite badly). Smith is also a hilarious Mr. Goldstone.

Lauren Maria Medina is the perfect Louise. She’s overworked, kind, anxious to please, sweet of face and pushed aside by Rose in favor of June until June leaves the act. Medina’s transition and character change to Gypsy Rose Lee is especially masterful.

Tori Heinlein is also perfectly cast as June. She is cute, talented, frustrated with Rose’s domination, and dreams of being a legitimate actress. Both Heinlein and Medina are engaging.

There are many outstanding supporting performances in this production. J’Kobe Wallace is Tulsa, dreaming of his own act, who does an outstanding job dancing and singing in “All I Need Is the Girl.” Milla Liss is a shy, awkward, young Louise, second fiddle to June, while Elin Joy Seiler is a sweet, precocious Baby June with fantastic gymnastic talents – cartwheels, splits and baton twirling. Liss and Seiler are delightful.

All members of the supporting cast are compellingly exceptional and deserve recognition in their multiple roles: Cedric Young, Daryn Whitney Harrell, Christopher Kelley, Kevin Kulp, Steve O’Connell, Joseph Primes, Laura Savage, Ayana Strutz, Arik Vega, Annie Yokom, Jordyn Helvie, Elliot Angsurat, Lucian Gutfraynd, Jojo Nabwangu and swings Ben Broughton, Mandy Modic and Madison Sheward.

The standing ovation that met the curtain call of the first cast members onstage was deservedly prolonged, but when Spina was given a solo bow, there was a roar. Both Marriott and “Gypsy” live up to their legendary status. Yes, everything is coming up roses with this blockbuster.