A Zen koan is a seeming contradiction used for the purpose of spiritual instruction. One of the better known examples refers to “the sound of one hand clapping..” At the core of the musical Gypsy is a kind of koan. Generally speaking, the “Gypsy” of the title is Gypsy Rose Lee, a very beautiful, intelligent, talented woman whose illustrious career as a stripper would only begin to describe the depth and adventure of her personal and public life. Why then, is so little of the show devoted to her story? (When I picked up the program I was startled to note the burlesque siren featured was actually Sue Mathys, the actress who plays Mama Rose.) Is it because Gypsy’s mother, Rose, made her who she was? Was it Rose’s obsessive need to live vicariously through her children? I don’t present this as some sort of egregious oversight. Consistent with their customary level of excellence, Lyric Stage has produced a magnificent version of Gypsy, with full orchestra, scads of performers and detailed, salient sets. If anything I’m shocked that after viewing this material for so many years, it suddenly hit me that Gypsy is at least 98 % Rose’s biography. Perhaps this is why the role has attracted so many exquisite, accomplished ladies of the American stage, including : Patti Lupone, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bette Midler.
It’s curious how much we appreciate the fierce, conniving overbearing Mama Rose. Lionize her. Even when we take into account the politics and favoritism, the desperation and greed. We understand it takes toughness and gumption to survive in such a jungle and if Rose wasn’t perfect, if she cared less about achieving excellence of craft than simply being a star, there’s something quintessentially American about succeeding amongst cutthroats when all you’ve got is your wits and a ferocious will to survive. It’s only when the show reaches its apex, that we see the lengths Rose will go, to achieve notoriety for Louise (aka Gypsy) that her motives seem so much less noble. Gypsy does not let up. It purposefully, carefully escalates to its famous finale, “Rose’s Turn”, in which she defiantly expresses her need for recognition and fame. Very possibly, what salvages her character, is our realization (conceded by Louise) that she’d never have soared so high without Mama pushing her, all along the way. In one sense Rose represents the best and worst of all mothers. She also embodies our need to persist in the face of adversity. No matter how discouraging the circumstances, Mama Rose refuses to surrender or compromise.
We follow Rose from the time her daughters, Louise and June (devoted sisters with no trace of animosity) are young girls, until they are grown young women. Early on, she convinces her beau Herbie to be their agent, with a gaggle of dancing and singing young men in tow. Struggling to hit the big time in vaudeville and living out of the proverbial steamer trunk, they get by as best they can, exhausting themselves and having little to show for it. The script by Arthur Laurents is wry and savvy, while retaining the charm of performers wandering from town to town, stuck in a corny act and being family for another, an extra egg roll to help celebrate when birthdays come along. There’s no question it’s a finely woven, intriguing narrative, overflowing with wisecracking humor and pathos to choke you up. The songs (Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) comprise some of the most famous in the canon of American Musical Theatre. “Some People, Small World, If Momma Was Married, Everything’s Coming Up Roses” to name just a few.
The large, gifted, extensive and enthusiastic cast of Lyric Stage’s Gypsy gives new meaning to the phrase : “force of nature.” They keep the voltage going for close to three hours, with excellent singing, hoofing and comic savoir faire. Ashton Smalling (June) and Mary McElree (Louise) are sharp, funny and poised. McElree rises to the occasion when she breaks out as her own woman in the stripper (Let Me Entertain You) montage. It’s a crucial transformation, beginning when she emerges in her gown and culminating in her dressing room, years later, and McElree carries it off with finesse and fury. Other standouts from this uniformly compelling troupe include : Keith J. Warren, Sonny Franks, Sara Shelby-Martin, Thomas Christopher Renner, Caitlin Carter and Shannon McGrann. Sue Mathys, as Rose, is a powerhouse tucked into a small package. You can feel her bringing more bravado to each song until her formidable finish, when she shakes the rafters and makes your hair stand on end. Mathys makes the role entirely her own, standing in no one’s shadow, and it’s exhilarating.
Lyric Stage proudly presents Gypsy, playing September 9th -18th, 2011. Irving Arts Center, 3333 North MacArthur, Irving, Texas 75062. 972-252-2787. lyric age.org