"Sing out, Louise!" is one of the most identifiable and exciting lines in musical theater. Audience members nod with a knowing smile as it is shouted onstage, happily awaiting the thrill ride that follows over the next three hours. For those less versed in the canon, it should be said that those three words mark the entrance of one of the great theatrical characters of all time: Mama Rose, the mother of all stage mothers, in Gypsy.
St. Jean's Players, one of the city's best-kept secrets, is presenting a must-see production of this legendary show, based on the life of stripteaser Gypsy Rose Lee. Set during the vaudeville era, Gypsy follows Rose (Mary Anne Gruen) as she pushes her favored daughter, June, to show business success in one act after another. (Bridget Clark and Colleen Lis split the role between June's early and later years.)
Meanwhile, Rose's other daughter, Louise (Sonia Brozak and Hannah Fairchild also split the role), finds herself relegated to wallflower status onstage and also-ran at home. Rose will sacrifice everything to achieve vicarious success through her daughter, even marriage to her paramour, road manager Herbie (played by Alex Arruda, who displays an amazing baritone).
As Rose, Gruen is a marvel in a role that has become iconic after performances by such stars as Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, and Angela Lansbury. She's pushy as can be, but it comes from a very desperate place. It's almost impossible not to be moved when she laments, "I was born too soon and started too late!" during "Rose's Turn," her bravura number.
But Gypsy isn't just Rose's story; it is her daughter's as well. The show packs a lot of plot development into an overlong first act—this performance clocked in at nearly 100 minutes—and there isn't much that any theater company can do to get around that, as every scene is essential while we watch June and Rose mature. Director Bryan McHaffey boldly soldiers through this material. June, Rose's big hope, tires of being a puppet and runs away with one of the background dancers in her company. Never willing to be a victim, Rose decides to focus her attention on Louise.
As written, the show compresses too many character changes into its second act. Louise rebels in her own way, eventually becoming a world-famous strip artist. One cannot alter Arthur Laurents's book to make this arc more believable; a company can only rely on solid performances to connect the dots. As the older Louise, Fairchild does a great job covering those bases.
She and Lis also both prove to be amazing dancers and singers. The hallmark of any outstanding revival is that it highlights something new in the production, whether it's a scene, a musical number, or a different angle to the story. St. Jean's production does just that with the duet in the often overlooked song "If Momma Was Married," in which the characters long for a different kind of life, singing in beautiful harmony. But then, even the second-tier songs (by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim) are masterful, in a show that includes the classics "Some People," "Let Me Entertain You," "Together, Wherever We Go," and "Everything's Coming Up Roses."
Additionally, credit must be paid to Diane Collins, Rosalynd Darling, and Jennifer Hoddinott, who nail the naughty second-act showstopper "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" (and Hoddinott looks far different from her last St. Jean's role, as the prim Grace Farrell in Annie). Darling does double duty as clarinetist in the incomparable orchestra, which also includes Razy Jordan, Linda Blacken, and Harriet Levine.
I was curious to see whether St. Jean's could pull off Gypsy, and particularly if it could gear the show to its family-friendly audiences. The company did another sterling job, emphasizing that this is a show about families and how they get along through the best and worst of times. Clearly, I needn't have worried. As always, this company knows exactly what it is doing.