The musical Gypsy, the story of a stagestruck mama trying to re-live her disappointing life through her two daughters, is a stage classic, packed with Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's terrific songs, playwright Arthur Laurents' fascinating characters and a solid story based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
Even so, because the characters are as compelling as a train wreck, it's sometimes difficult to watch, mainly because those characters are so recognizable. Nearly everyone either knows — or is — that frustrated dad shouting to his uninterested peewee football son from the sidelines, or that disappointed-in-life mom plotting everything up to and including murder to get her daughter chosen as cheerleader.
Still, to paraphrase movie critic Roger Ebert, "A show is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it."
And therein lies the problem with the Stage West Community Playhouse production of Gypsy, playing weekends through Jan. 20.
To be sure, there's talent galore on the stage. Adorable kids. Good voices. Pretty costumes. Actors who know their lines and, for the most part, say them in correct order.
But, despite some bright spots — the five young Farmboys (Michael Mekus, Matthew Romeo, Jesse Yarbrough, Zachary Binder and Timmy Audette) dancing and singing their hearts out; the burlesque house strippers (Jennifer Vilardi, Wahnita DeFrancesco, Mari-Beth Rose) providing laughs and brass and just the right tone; a lovely, grown-up Louise (Amanda Bajzec) showing glimpses of what she and the show could be — the whole thing, on opening night, seemed more like an early rehearsal instead of a ready for prime time, polished performance.
Lay the blame at the feet of director John Masterson, whose disastrous sets, amateurish use of the grand curtain (open, close, open, close, open, close — you get the idea) and failure to utilize the minor side stages for transition scenes, instead setting every little exchange in center stage, add agonizing minutes of distracting blackouts to an already lengthy show.
Then there are some casting errors, mainly with the lead, Mama Rose, played by Patti Watters. She has the pipes but not the moxie to play the ultimate stage mother. This role demands aggressive energy and passion, but Watters' Mama Rose is painfully detached and shows emotion simply by talking louder and LOUDER. Gary Ammerman's Herbie, Mama Rose's longtime suitor, has the look and style for the role, but the couple's scenes together spark no chemistry. He talks, she talks, but it's not like a conversation.
Masterson did nothing to help his players realize their potential, instead letting them dispassionately deliver words in seeming isolation, as though each actor is inside a bell jar all alone. The result is that a play that is supposed to show life's hopes, dreams, dashed ambitions, raw relationships, struggles and pain is often lifeless and static, with each scene sort of happening on its own with no flow.
And I won't even go into the poor lighting design and balky sound system.
What the audience can take home to savor are their moments with Ms. Bajzec, the strippers, the dancers and those glimmering times the actors created either on their own or with the help of choreographer Wahnita DeFrancesco: the spunky Rylie Nelson playing Baby June; the cute-as-a-button Newsboys (Danielle Clark, Carter DeBeathan, Krystina Llepka, McKinnley Nelson, Briana Rifino, Louis Romeo); a graceful, grown-up June (Stephanie Cooper); the Hollywood Blondes (Abigail Brazier, Holly Frendberg, Victoria Razzano, Danielle Clark, Briana Rifino) hamming it up as totally untalented and over-eager performers; and Bill Dimmitt doing a fine job in a variety of roles.
Gypsy is a big show based on a universal truth. It deserves tender treatment, but isn't getting it at Stage West.