Musicals at Richter

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Critic's Review :

Richter showcases award-worthy 'Gypsy'

By Chesley Plemmons

It's not often the leading character in a musical comedy is almost unlikeable, but in "Gypsy," now at Musicals at Richter in Danbury, that's true of Rose, the stage mother to end them all. It's not often, either, for a Broadway musical so well put together  there are those who would argue "Gypsy" is the best blend of words and music ever  to miss getting the Tony Award. This zesty ode to show business by Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) didn't win in 1960. Instead the award, in a tie, went to the well-deserving "Fiorello!" and the saccharine "The Sound of Music."

Richter's production, directed with considerable panache by Scott R. Brill, illustrates the dubiousness of awards. "Fiorello!" is rarely performed; "Music" is still so sugary the shock to the nerves in your teeth may force you to chew on your program; yet "Gypsy" remains sharply conceived, musically rich entertainment.

Maressa Gershowitz
"Together, Wherever We Go" sings the ever optimistic Rose (Elyse Jasensky) to daughter Louise (Nikki Sanders) and boyfriend Herbie (Kevin Moore) in the show business saga "Gypsy" at Musicals at Richter in Danbury.

The first act is sheer perfection with nine songs, each of them glittering with Sondheim's blossoming wit and Styne's infectious melodies; a vote from this corner for "You'll Never Get Away From Me."

Suggested by the memoirs of stripper/actress/author Gypsy Rose Lee, Laurent's script for "Gypsy" covers the period between the early '20s when vaudeville was in its last days of glory  movies were taking over  until the early '30s when the only thing left in two-a-day theater was burlesque.

It follows the bumpy childhood careers of Lee and her sister June Havoc under the obsessive direction of their mother, Rose. As soon as the girls were old enough to push on stage, Rose devised kiddie acts featuring "Baby" June with her sister Louise (later Gypsy Rose) as part of the backup chorus . Even when they reached their teens, Rose persisted in trotting out the girls as though they were still babes in the woods.

Lee's remembrances of backstage life with her domineering mother were written with much more leniency than sister June's own bitter recollections, but there's no question Mama Rose was a humdinger!

As depicted in "Gypsy," Rose is a combination slave driver and small-time con artist, but she's also a dreamer ready to do anything to make her darling June a star. As someone in the play observes, "she's a pioneer woman without a frontier."

When June finally rebels and runs off with one of the young boys in the act, Rose turns in desperation to Louise and tries to make her a star. That's the second act of the musical, and it's intriguing how Louise becomes "Gypsy Rose Lee" the celebrated and cerebral strip-tease artist.

There is, however, an air of repetition in Rose's drive for success and the ending, even with the impassioned "Rose's Turn," is a bit of an anti-climax.

Elyse Jasensky is Rose, and if her characterization is more in the vein of pushy than possessed she's nevertheless a force to be contended with. Her songs include the powerful "Everything's Coming Up Roses," a sort of whistling-in-the-dark challenge to the fates and "Small World." She turns "World" into a delectable backhanded proposal of romance to Herbie, the mild mannered candy salesman, played here with nicely understated earnestness by Kevin Moore. It is clear throughout that it's Rose who is stage struck, and Jasensky delivers "Some People" like a manifesto. The song and singer are so compelling it's surprising there's no reprise.

Brill moves the large cast through their paces effectively if not always with speed there's something about Richter's big stage that seems to slow things down. Producer Joyce Northrop has cooperated with a well-meshed production, although some placards brought on stage by a couple of chorus girls were unreadable except from the first few rows.

Praise is due all in the large cast, whose members often assume multiple roles. Among the standouts, Nikki Sanders evolves rather sexily into Gypsy (she's also due credit for the choreography) and Tim Wildin impresses as an ambitious young hoofer in "All I Need is the Girl." Juliette Garrison as Tessie Tura, a bump-and-grind artiste, might cause your Aunt Tillie to blush, but just watch your uncle smile.

The music, under the direction, of Phil Rittner on the keyboard is appropriately bright and brassy despite some occasional sour sounds from the trumpets.

Is "Gypsy" the best musical ever fashioned? Comes close, and Musicals at Richter helps make the case.

"Gypsy" continues through July 25 at Musicals at Richter, Richter Park, Aunt Hack Road, Danbury. Performances are Friday through Sunday at 8:30 p.m. The grounds open at 7:15 for picnicking. Tickets are $14; seniors $12, students and children $10. Call (203) 748-6873.

copyright © 2001 by The News-Times



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