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A CurtainUp Review
By James Moore
The musical's genesis came about when playwright Arthur Laurents was convinced to adapt the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's rather imaginative memoirs for the stage. Laurents quickly realized that the real story was not that of Lee, but of her mother Rose. An aspiring actress who blamed her failures on the fact that she was "born too soon and started too late," Mamma Rose sought glory-by-proxy in the Vaudeville careers of her daughters. When youngest daughter Louise finally makes it in the tawdry world of burlesque, Momma Rose is all too happy to come along for the ride.
There is of course a bit more to the Gypsy story than that of a mother who prods her daughter towards stardom. We witness the decline of Vaudeville in the twenties and we're given a glimpse into the misery of life that beset America during the dustbowl thirties. Finally, as Gypsy's career ascends we see burlesque emerge as the progenitor of commercial sexual tantilization. All the while, we're treated to the familiar Broadway tunes by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim that have endowed Gypsy with its enduring appeal.
When I saw Gypsy during a matinee in July, Kate Henning substituted for Nora McLellan in the role of Rose. With more than a bit of Merman psychologically imprinted on my brain, I went to the show with some trepidation about seeing a substitute in the critical main role. I needn't have worried. Henning was superb. Her singing was excellent, and she delivered just the right amount of machismo that the role requires. Henning is playing Rose for four productions a month during the remainder of the season.
In simple terms, the Shaw's 2005 version of Gypsy is splendid. The familiar musical numbers and choreography are all well done, and everyone in the large cast delivers a strong performance. Particularly in a production replete with children on stage, one almost expects to detect a flaw or two, but none of that was in evidence during the Gypsy that I witnessed. All of the children delivered superlative performances, and director Jackie Maxwell deserves extra kudos for making that happen.
Be prepared to wade your way through busloads of arriving theatregoers if you attend a performance of Gypsy. The show is proving to be immensely attractive to theatre tour operators, and it's unlikely that there will be many empty seats at any performance. Given the audience's enthusiastic response at the matinee that I attended, I imagine that Gypsy will prove to be the most popular show in the current Shaw season.
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