Gypsy is often regarded as one of the greatest musicals ever written with almost every song, from “Let Me Entertain You” to “Rose’s Turn” being a classic, and Goodspeed Musicals has brought an overall exciting production of the classic Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim musical, with a book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Jenn Thompson, choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, and running through June 25 at Goodspeed Opera House at 6 Main St., East Haddam, Connecticut.
Suggested by her memoirs, Gypsy is the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, and her rise from child performer in the dying vaudeville circuit to one of the most renowned burlesque dancers of the 20th century. The story starts with Gypsy Rose, at the time as Louise, as a young girl played by Cameron Blake Miller, as part of a traveling children’s act starring her sister Baby June, played by Emily Jewel Hoder. The act is supervised and created by their dominating mother, the mother of all stage mothers, Rose, played by Judy McLane.
Louise, now as an adult played by Talia Suskauer, who has always played second fiddle to her sister, due to her more plain looks, and general lack of talent as a vaudeville performer, is suddenly thrust into the spotlight when June, played by Laura Sky Herman, has finally had enough of her mother’s abusive behavior and runs away.
With no one else to take the stage, Louise is Rose’s only choice moving forward in a dying art form.
Jenn Thompson has overall assembled a great cast. Suskauer is phenomenal as the stage shy Louise. Though her character is a bit tone deaf, she isn’t. Her performance of “Little Lamb” is adorably sweet and charming, and her evolution over the course of the Gypsy Strip Routine is perfect, each turn on stage opening her up a little more, confidence growing, and her ascendance to womanhood and stardom becoming complete.
Herman and Jewel Hoder are insanely adorable as June the younger and older. The amount of saccharine sweetness emanating out of their performances during their vaudeville acts is enough to scare a dentist out of the theater, and it’s perfect.
Philip Hernandez, who gave the performance of the year as Don Quixote in Westport Country Playhouse’s Man of La Mancha a few years back returns with a solid turn as Herbie, the family’s agent who has a romantic fancy for Rose and a fond affection for June and Louise.
Unfortunately, the weakest part of the cast is McLane as Rose, who though gives a serviceable, tend to be about a quarter tone flat in her songs and never quite manages to express the narcissistic totalitarian insanity that is Rose. By the time her 11 o’clock number “Rose’s Turn” comes about, on the insane meter, Rose needs to be at 11 and McLane gets to about seven or eight. I never felt the necessary mania and wild growth of desperation of success from her.
A lot of her performance informs how the rest of the cast does as she is really the focal point of the show and everything moves around her. Especially Hernandez’ performance and Herbie since he gets little stage time with anyone else.
Overall, though, the show has a lot of great elements. Patricia Wilcox gets to show off her talents as a choreographer with Tulsa’s fantastic “All I Need Is a Girl,” where Tulsa, played by Michael Starr, dreams of getting away from the oppressive thumb of Rose to do his own act.
The “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number is wonderfully silly as three elder burlesque dancers, Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie, played by Romelda Teron Benjamin, Victoria Huston-Elem, and Valerie Wright respectively, show Louise how to keep men interested in their acts as their looks have faded.
What was fantastic with Thompson’s direction was not making the opening “Let Me Entertain You” so sweet that we lose the important reality of child exploitation that is being conducted by Rose with her children, especially of June. Granted, Rose wouldn’t let anyone take advantage of her children that way because she is too possessive to let something like that happen, there is an overt connection between how the song is performed at the beginning of the show and how it is performed at the end by Louise’s as an adult. When reflecting on the song during Louise’s performance as she strips before the audience, it has us question the morality of its first performance with June, who didn’t have any agency at all as a performer, more than Louise’s performance, who is doing something far more adult, but is singing the song of her own volition.
Alexander Dodge, who is one of my favorite scenic designers, has conceived a fairly simple set. The show predominantly happens downstage with a backdrop with advertisements for different businesses across the United States where Rose and her troupe of children have traveled. Paul Miller’s lighting design plays a prominent role with the design as he frames some of these ads to give the audience an indication as to where we are in the country. It’s a clever little idea that avoids the need for supertitles projected for us to know where we are. Goodspeed Musicals has developed an overall excellent production of Gypsy. The younger cast in particular give crowd pleasing performances. I just wish we got a bit more out of McLane. Then everything would have been coming up roses.