Presenting a musical like Gypsy is no mean feat. Its subject matter is difficult (a mother who drives her two children to stardom, eventually driving one away from her and another into a career as a burlesque stripper). It’s been through four Broadway revivals. It’s been made into a film twice. It’s starred stage greats like Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Ethel Merman. It’s been touted as musical theatre’s answer to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The cast members of Dark Horse Company Theatre’s production of Gypsy certainly don’t seem to be feeling any. Though the opening night of the show presented a handful of technical troubles (incorrect sound cues, mics left on backstage, costume mishaps), the unflappable actors moved on through.
Lauren Noll as the retiring Louise is sweet and mild-mannered enough to make you underestimate her for a while, until she shows you what she can truly do—draw an audience in and keep them in the palm of her hand. Noll carries the part beautifully, moving from shy mouse to outspoken daughter to burlesque star with ease; Louise’s frustrations, fascinations, and fears are all painfully clear on her face and in her body at every moment. Her voice is clear and clean; she blends beautifully with Elise Groves’ (June) sharper, more driving belt during “If Mama Was Married”.
Jonathan McBride is criminally underused as Herbie, the milquetoast agent with a perpetual ulcer. The role unfortunately calls for too few songs to show off McBride’s singing chops, but what he gets to display is truly remarkable. McBride turns Herbie into a warm and compassionate fellow that just can’t seem to get what he needs in life, a man frustrated with his circumstances and most of all with himself. The age discrepancy between McBride and Teresa Sanderson (Mama Rose) is apparent, but the actors erase it skilfully and present a troubled couple in a lopsided relationship.
The rest of the cast is rounded out in a lovely way; though occasionally scenes lacked a true and resounding emotional depth, everyone gets at least one laugh from the audience. The talent is indisputable. In particular, the three burlesque dancers (Rebecca Joy Raboy, Karli Lowry, and Lisa Grow) in the second act are brilliant—it’s a where-have-you-been-all-my-life feeling when they show up onstage, injecting a sensational jolt of energy into the show. It was also a sincere pleasure to see a broad spectrum of women playing these roles. Grow’s slightly dotty Electra is sexy, and yet Grow mentions her grandchildren in her cast bio (you’d never guess it); Lowry’s horn-playing Mazeppa is raunchy and slightly zaftig (and hilarious to boot); and Raboy’s Tessi Tura is tanned and toned and mouthy (just the kind of woman you’d expect to see in a burlesque show).
It’s a charming cast, and its crown jewel is Sanderson’s Mama Rose.
Sanderson is a familiar name in Utah theater, and here she shows the reason why. Her take on Rose is brash and bold, a stubborn survivor, doggedly hanging on to what she has and what she knows. She is crass and perhaps too old for all of this, but she is unwilling to relinquish her grip. Her obstinacy is what brings the audience with her; we feel as if we are being hauled along, unable to get out from under her thumb, just like her daughters. Sanderson handles this masterfully, tempering scenes with humor and showing that though Rose is somewhat rough around the edges, she thinks of herself as a lady. She rarely lets us see Rose falter for more than a moment until her explosive rendition of “Rose’s Turn”. Sanderson leaves it all on the stage. It is unreal to see the raw emotion in her; it feels as if it should be an utterly private moment, and yet we are unable to look away. I walked away feeling as if Sanderson’s performance was, in some ways, a long version of Gypsy’s striptease; a strap dropped here, a glove taken off there, and only at the end were we allowed to see the entire body, stripped naked with nothing to hide behind.
Though the acting was stellar, the staging did present a few peculiarities. Large screens in the background were used to great advantage and detriment: each city was projected onto them as the family traveled, giving a great sense of time passing, but there were also a handful of graphics that seemed too modern and out of place (as well as Rose interacting with the projections once, a slightly jarring incident that wasn’t repeated). Though the idea is executed well, a dance number with the sisters transforming from their child selves into adults is overlaid with a strobe light that goes on perhaps a bit too long for the seizure-prone audience member.
Though the technical aspects of the show could have benefited from some polishing, the cast (and the live band) is excellent, and Gypsy is well worth a drive into Park City for Sanderson alone.
Dark Horse Company Theatre presents Gypsy – The Legendary Musical (the final show in the Egyptian Theatre’s “Musicals On Main” Series), July 8 – 31. Tickets are $15 – $30. www.egyptiantheatrecompany.org