Gypsy is considered by many to be the first modern musical. It opened on Broadway in 1959 starring Ethel Merman in the key role. Gypsy was nominated for eight Tony Awards that year including Best Musical, but did not win any. In spite of that, the show has spawned four revivals, a 1962 movie adaptation with Rosalind Russell and a 1993 television adaptation starring Bette Midler.
Chances are you could be one of four generations to have seen (or acted in) Gypsy. For the dozen or so of you who have not enjoyed at least one of those productions, it is the story of a hard driving, down and out mother – Rose – totally focused on a musical career for her talented daughter – Baby June – during the dying days of Vaudeville. Rose puts together a kiddie Vaudeville show featuring daughter Baby June and a troupe of wayward youngsters. They travel around the country on less than a shoestring, Rose pleading with second rate music halls to hire them.
The show is based on a real life entertainer, the incomparable Gypsy Rose Lee. However, Gypsy is not the main character – her mother, Rose, is. And Gypsy is not the precocious daughter, Baby June, for whom Rose invested her adult life trying to create a Vaudeville career. Gypsy is the other daughter, Louise, the plain one Rose ignored as she focused on June. More on that later.
Of course this is a musical, and a glorious one at that. The songs are among Broadway’s most memorable, including, “Let Me Entertain You,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
The performances are superb with Jacqueline Piro Donovan playing Rose and Bob Walton as her agent/significant other, Herbie, who ultimately realizes Rose’s only significant other is the entertainment career that forever eluded her. Baby June is played by pint-size Olivia Flanders, whose performance in the kiddie act her mother created, “Baby June and the Newsboys,” is a high point in the show. A “newer” version of that act, “Dainty June and Her Farmboys,” features a more grown up Baby June (played by Charity Van Tessel), performing the same kiddie show although she and the boys are no longer kiddies.
The other daughter, Baby Louise, is portrayed by Quinn Wood, who hides in her sister’s shadow until June leaves the struggling act. Mama Rose then creates “Madame Rose’s Toreadorables,” this time with an older Louise (Austen Danielle Bohmer) trying to squeeze into the same kiddie act, no longer cute during the Depression when Vaudeville is no longer entertaining.
They hit bottom in Wichita where Herbie accidentally books them into a burlesque house. He decides to break up with Mama Rose who is finally distraught about all her failures. Meanwhile long ignored daughter Louise tries to earn bus fare back home by sewing costumes for past-their-never-realized-prime burlesque “dancers.” In a hilarious set piece to “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” Louise then decides to “woman up” and miraculously transforms from a dusty moth into a well formed butterfly. She becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the character that would bring her fame and fortune. This is when Louise (Bohmer) truly shines with snippets of performances as she perfects her act and becomes increasingly popular, ending up as the headliner at Minsky’s Burlesque on Broadway.
The songs make the show and no one does it better than songwriter Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. As Riverside CEO said during his introduction to the show, you have to listen to the beauty of those lyrics to understand the greatness of Sondheim.
The musicians, as usual, are superb and the production design is Broadway quality. As a personal side note, in real life Baby June became actress and singer June Havoc. At one point in her career, my father was her accompanist. Songwriter Jule Styne’s publisher was Chappell & Co. Inc., where I met him one summer and he asked me to find a summer job in the company for his teenage son, Nick. How could I refuse?
If you have seen any production of Gypsy, whether on stage, in a movie, or on television, you owe it to yourself not to miss the show at Riverside Theatre. It’s as good as it gets!
“You Gotta Have a ticket, if you want to see Gyp-sy”
Performances will continue through March 25 on the Stark Stage at Riverside. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 772-231-6990 or online at www.riversidetheatre.com.