And I Thought My Mother Was Bad….

Last night, otaku_tetsuko joined us (nsshere wasn’t feeling well) as we ventured to Hollywood to see the West Coast Ensemble production of “Gypsy“. Yes, that “Gypsy“—the one that has numerous big name stars in it (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone) and is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest musicals. West Coast Ensemble is doing a version of the show they are calling “Gypsy… stripped”, which is done in a very small production, directed by Richard Israel, in a 99-seat older theatre, with a five-piece orchestra. A very seedy-feeling production, bare-bones, that focuses on the acting.

Wait, you say you’ve never heard of the story of “Gypsy“? “Gypsy“, on its face, is the story of the creation of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. In reality, it is the story of her stage mother, Rose Havok. You can find a detailed summary at Musicals.Net, but in short: The story starts in Seattle, where Rose is trying to get her kids, June and Rose, into a kiddy show. She succeeds, and this starts them on the road. They acquire an agent (Herbie) and supporting boys, and start on the vaudeville circuits. Slowly successful, they run into the death of vaudeville. Bookings start to get slower, and the children get older—at least in life, if not on stage. As the first act ends, June has gotten fed up, and one of the boys, Tulsa, has developed his own dance duo act. They elope, leaving Rose, Herbie, and Louise to regroup. In Act II, Rose is attempting to restart the act around Louise, but failing. They eventually end up as a children’s act at a burlesque theatre in Wichita. Here, Louise learns about the stripper’s life. When their gig ends, Herbie is about to marry Rose, when the theatre suddently needs a star stripper. Rose volunteers Louise, which is the last straw for Herbie. Louise goes on, timidly at first, to discover a career she loves and is good at. This leaves Rose unneeded, and as the musical ends, we learn why Rose did it all—not for the children, but for herself, living vicariously through her children’s success that she could never have.

Most versions of Gypsy are built around a star and a star’s performance, and people remember their Gypsy’s by the Mama Rose performer. Oh, I saw Merman. I saw Daly. I saw Peters. For this Gypsy, the Mama Rose actress (Jan Sheldrickæ) was not a big-name star. Her singing was not the calibur of a Peters or LuPone (although it was good); I’m not sure her voice will last out the run. But she was a strong actress… and it is the acting at close quarters that makes this show. Watching her face during performances such as “Roses Turn” you could see the determination and vulnerability of this woman—this was a woman you crossed at your own risk.

Faces. They are what made this production. I just loved watching the faces. My favorite was that of Stephanie Wallæ (). She was just such a great reactive performer. Watching her in “Little Lamb” or “If Mama Was Married” was a delight. She was timid; she was joyful; she was expressive. In “All I Need Is the Girl”, you could see her longing to dance with Tulsa. Perhaps her best faces and reactions were in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, where her face showed such abject terror and horror as Rose became focused on Louise’s success. Similarly, her face during “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” was remarkable: going from shock to joy. Watching this young woman’s transformation into Gypsy was just great; you could just read the self confidence (although I was disappointed there wasn’t more of the older Gypsy — I seem to recall a bit more in the strip routine number). Although people claim Rose is the star of this show, I personally feel this show was made by Ms. Wall.

Another great face was Michael Matthysæ as Herbie. This is not a strong singing role (the original was Jack Klugman). Mr. Matthys’ strength, again, was in his acting and his face. You could see his love for Rose and the kids. You could see his horror as Rose turned in “Everythings Coming Up Roses”. You could see his disappointment as Rose pimped her daughter in Wichita. Very expressive actor.

A few other “faces” that I want to particularly mention. The first “face” that I found fascinating was that of Caitlin Williams as young Louise. She seemed so lost on the stage when contrasted with her sister (played by Kaleigh Ryan). She seemed off in the dance numbers, a bit lost with the words, but I got the impression that was the actress acting—she was doing a wonderful job of showing Louise as the introverted one who was not comfortable on stage. I also enjoyed the face of Kaylie Swanson as the older June, especially during the “If Mama Was Married” sequence where her personality shone through. As Tulsa, Eric Allen Smith was a remarkable dancer and a delight in “All I Need Is The Girl”. A fourth worthy face was Sara J. Stuckey () as Tessie Tura (she also had a few other small roles). As Tessie, you could she how she enjoyed burlesque for what it was, and how she enjoyed interacting with Mama Rose’s girls.

Rounding out the cast were: L. J. Benet () (performer boy / singer / newsboy); Kelly Jean Clairæ () (Mazeppa / Miss Cratchitt); Quintan Craig (Yonkers); Glory Curda (Balloon Girl); Major Curdaæ (Boy Scout / Newsboy); Saylor Curda (Twirling Girl); Amy Lawrenceæ () (Marjorie); Larry Ledermanæ () (George / Rose’s Father / Mr. Kringelein / Cigar); Dan Pachecoæ (Angie); Tony Pandolfoæ (Uncle Jocko / Mr. Weber / Mr. Goldstone / Pasty); Zack Salas () (L.A. / Bourgeron); Katie Scarlett (Agnes / Showgirl); Jessica Schatzæ () (Electra / Renee / Stage Mother); Ann Villella () (Geraldine / Showgirl); and Petey Yarosh () (Newsboy).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, the production was bare bones. The set, designed by Stephen Gifford, was primarily a bare stage with vaudeville stage cards and simple props. The costumes, by Zale Morris (assisted by Cat J. Scanlan as associate and Daniel Kingsland as assistant), were appropriately period and seedy (although Tessie’s was a big more risque than I expected). Wigs were by Anthony Gagliardi. The sound by Rebecca Kessin was seemingly unamplified. The lighting by Lisa D. Katz was relatively static and unadored with lots of blues and pinks, with a single follow spot. Stage management was by Nicholas Acciani, assisted by Lindsay Capacio.

The production was directed with Richard Israel, with musical directon by Johanna Kent. The orchestra was uncredited and unseen, but sounded like five pieces. This was a mistake—they deserved credit. Choreography was by John Todd, who did an effective job with movement and dance.

The West Coast Ensemble webpage does not show a closing date for “Gypsy“. It is being performed at the Theatre of the Arts Arena Stage, which is behind the Egyptian Theatre on Las Palmas in Hollywood. Tickets are available through West Coast Ensemble, as well as through Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: The last weekend of May brings Cabaret” at REP East on May 28. June begins with “Year Zero” at the Colony Theatre on June 5, but most of June is lost to the college visit trip (but who knows — we might go see “Always Patsy Cline” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville). July should hopefully start with “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2; pending hottix ticketed, followed by Western Corps Connection on July 3 in Riverside. July should continue with Jerry Springer: The Opera (July 8, Chance Theatre, pending ticketing); “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed); “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed); Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl); “Shrek” (July 23 or 24, Pantages Theatre, pending ticketing); and “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August will bring “Doubt” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20. The remainder of August is currently open.


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