..."I’m not a stripper. At these prices, I’m an ecdysiast!”
Easily one of my favorite Broadway musicals, I have seen “Les Miserables” countless times. And on each attendance I still sit breathless and rapt as Eponine sings her signature song,“On My Own,” in an electrifying voice, transporting me directly to revolutionary France.
Echoing those sensibilities, as I watched the final weekend performance of “Gypsy, A Musical Fable” at the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts, I was equally transported to the Great Depression – the Orpheum Circuit, the dusty roads, and the glittering lights of Broadway dreams.
Minutes before the show, with just a hint of butterflies, I wondered whether this Gypsy could live up to its legend of praise and multiple Tony nominations, often referred to as “Broadway’s book musical." But then, just as quickly, my trepidation vanished and it was replaced with a sense of ease and assurance. I mean, after all – Tim Nelson is directing! …And sure enough, the production surpassed my wildest expectations.
Even the overture, played with gusto by the pit orchestra under Gregg Gilboe’s baton, creates a sense of anticipatory excitement. The show itself is a testament to the power of the integrated musical in which Arthur Laurents' book, Jule Styne’s music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are all partners in genuine coalition, authentically evoking the tackiness of the touring vaudeville circuit of the early 1900’s when children were mercilessly exploited.
Inspired by Gypsy’s memoirs, Mr. Laurents concentrates his vision of the fractured family at the show’s center. The principal players, led by the incredible Daisy Tye (“Mary Poppins,” “Big Fish”) as smothering Mama Rose; Mackenzie Jones (“Disney’s Little Mermaid,” “Brigadoon”) as an intriguing Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee, and Patrick McCormick (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Side Show”) as Herbie, the gentlemanly candy salesman and reluctant theatrical agent who loves her – all packed a uniform wallop and a half.
Not one flat note or missed cue is to be found here, and the take-no-prisoners performance swept me pell-mell into this tale of a pushy stage-mother-from-hell, traveling across America from theatre to theatre, forcing her two young daughters to fulfill her own unrealized ambitions of vaudeville stardom.
Rose’s two daughters, June and Louise, are played by incrementally aged actresses. Breea Hayes is Baby June and Grace Houchen is Dainty June, donning a grinning masque that covers a sour disposition, and is alternately played by Olivia Aniceto. Young Louise is Melayna Lasky. Tulsa (Paul Rasoe), with his big dreams of a dance team with June, also is a prime highlight of the bright cast.
Gypsy is a strange, warped jewel in the crown of American theatre. Many of its songs have become classics, and critics throughout the years have heralded it as one of the best American musicals ever conceived. Rose, arguably the play’s central character, is a complex figure who has been portrayed throughout the years by greats such as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, and Patti LuPone.
In the early days of television, Gypsy Rose Lee was a "personality." By then, Burlesque was already dead and buried, so, she appeared exclusively on late-night talk shows or Hollywood Squares - like Polly Bergen, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean, or Oscar Levant - for reasons only my elders could fathom. But even among this talky coterie, Lee stood apart, and encounters with the famed "ecdysiast" inevitably turned to her colorful past. But since YouTube or Facebook was not around to augment reputations yet, the legendary striptease devolved into a coy, irritating talk-tease.
Then along came Gypsy in 1959, a jazzy, jarring Broadway musical based on Lee's memoirs starring Ethel Merman, for better or worse the brassiest musical stage-and-screen star of all time. Although Merman was considerably older than the title character - it all sorted out fine. Merman starred as Lee's mom, and the showbiz songs that she sang, particularly "Rose's Turn" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses," fit her like a glove. When the movie also came out in 1962 (which I have seen at least once on AMC), the beauteous Natalie Wood had the title role opposite a termagant Rosalind Russell, giving me then a faint idea of the erotic artistry that had been generated in early burlesque theatre.
Mama Rose begins as a busy, energetic, excited woman, and you can’t help being infected by her liveliness. Ms. Tye, a recurring APA thespian who is fast building a name for herself around OC, stars in this tuneful saga, and in the kind of role I have never seen her in. You understand why Herbie would be smitten with her, and for once, his description of her as looking “like a pioneer woman without a frontier” fits perfectly. But every so often a darker, creepier willpower erupts, as involuntary as a hiccup that quickly turns into an earthquake. “A showbiz Oedipus,” as Sondheim called her, “wrapped in self-delusion but also periodically engaging in her determination to take on the industry’s titans in order to promote her children.”
The real cultural earthquake was unleashed by Gypsy, however, in the children's novelty song that sisters Baby June and Baby Louise sing at the start of the show in a vaudeville act under Mama Rose's tutelage, "May We Entertain You." Much later, in a flash forward to Act 2, we find that June has eloped, vaudeville has become extinct, and Mama Rose is so desperate that she's ready to violate her own ban against Louise degrading herself by performing burlesque.
So, like they say, desperate times calls for desperate measures. And in a moment that brings to mind the greatest costume transformations in history, from Hello Dolly to Batman, waifish Louise becomes the vulpine Gypsy Rose Lee in the space of a wardrobe change.
Doubling down on that mythic image restyle is the sheet music for June's theme song, still in the family's traveling trunk, and suddenly resurrected as a repackaged "Let Me Entertain You" bump-and-grind anthem. Also regurgitated is the familiar zesty little greeting, "My name is Gypsy Rose Lee; what's yours?" Suddenly, I finally got what she was all about. This is not only a woman seizing her independence. It's a woman discovering her sexuality and reveling in its empowerment.
In the climactic "Louise’s Turn," built around Gypsy's canticle, successive striptease outfits, lavish and resplendent, are paraded onstage seductively, nicely complementing Ms. Jones’ incinerating choreography and daring gaze, with half the audience, including myself, staring slack-mouthed at her performance.
“Some man accused me of being an ecdysiast. Do you know what that means?…In vulgar parlance, a stripper. But I’m not a stripper. At these prices, I’m an ecdysiast!” Most of the audience got the idea without having to worry whether the cops were around the corner.
Savoring every moment of self-indulgence, Ms. Jones puts her mind, body and soul into Gypsy's sudden transformation, making the denouement powerful, alluring, and even moving. The whole arc of Louise's development is beautifully drawn, and seductively portrayed, but luckily performed before Ms. Tye’s “Rose’s Turn.” This number, in Rose’s last ditch effort to convince herself to take the spotlight after realizing she has lost it all, would be an awfully hard act to follow. In a powerful, emotional force of nature, her booming voice needless of amplification, Ms. Tye truly owns the stage vaingloriously, projecting in a comparable mix of megastars Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney and Lena Horne, fully formed, with depths to dig into, and with no separation at all between song and character.
Offering plenty of polished brass and ululating notes, while shining with a magnified transparency that takes you on a guided tour of all her inner demons, she rings the theatre with pure pitch and effortless chimes, all the while building a bridge for an audience to walk right into one woman’s nervous breakdown. In fact, darkness takes over so completely that you feel that you’re watching a woman who has been peeled down to her unadorned id.
The musical also contains many songs that have become popular standards, including "Everything's Coming Up Roses," Together (Wherever We Go)," "Small World," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," "Let Me Entertain You," and "All I Need Is the Girl."
Supporting roles add depth and flavor substantially. Ethan Ahlstrom doubling as Mr. Kringelein as well as Pastey, a burlesque theater stage manager; Ainsley Langerud, alternating with Delaney Blair as Miss Cratchitt, the snippy New York assistant to a Broadway producer; the Hollywood Blondes, the girls who accompany Louise on her own journey toward stardom: Rachel Bronder, Nat Carlson, Miranda Ellis, Irene Emahiser, Quinn Ewing, Gracie Hill, Lily Horns, Devyn Lietz, Payton Moore, Kenzie Riddle, Elizabeth Schlosser (also Renee), Sheridan Reineck and Hannah Robert. And most notably, Savvy Freshwater (alternating with Jaedynn Latter) as Tessie Tura; Isabella Lopez (alternating with Jullian Ponchack) as Miss Mazeppa; and Novelee Smedley (alternating with Kailyn McMullen) as Miss Electra, the strippers who give Louise their tips on how to make it in the 'biz.
Additional cast members included the Farmboys/Minsky Boys: Jack Borenstein (also Photographer), Nick Daniel, Brennan Eckberg (also Photographer), Max Hardy (also Photographer), Kyler Naef, Josh Outman (also Mr. Weber) and Scottie Richard. Newsboys: Joseph Cobb, Shane Gorsage, Isaiah Lane. Will Logan is Pop/Cigar; Brandon Duncan is Uncle Jocko; Sheridan Reineck also plays Agnes, Elizabeth Schlosser also is Marjorie May and Kenzie Riddle also plays Geraldine. Tyler Green is Georgie, Brandon Duncan is Phil and a Press Agent, and Liahna Flores is the Balloon Girl.
Scenic Designer is Kaitlyn Campbell; Lighting Designer is Jackson Podgorski; Sound Designer is Savanah Starks; Costume Designer is Karen Fisher; Hair & Makeup Designer is Caitlyn Wang; Projections are by Israel Arroyo and Stage Manager is Riley Russell. Directed by Tim Nelson, Choreography is by Diane Makas, and all things Technical by Joe Batte.
In yet another masterpiece from the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts, the group continues to astound show after show, year after year in theatrical achievement. And what better musical to continue that legend than "Gypsy, A Musical Fable," or to extol young talent like this.
Congratulations to all members of this amazing troupe. But although this run has ended, it would be my recommendation to consider another APA upcoming annual heavy hitter – "The Beatles Story 1969," an MMET fundraiser – which began fifty years ago, playing for two performances only, November 7th and 8th at First Christian Church in Huntington Beach. Don’t miss it!
The Show Report