Gypsy Rose Lee was such a glamorous stripper that she qualified as a class act within a showbiz realm that generally did not enjoy much respect. Not only does the 1959 Broadway musical based on her early life, “Gypsy,” do her justice, but it ranks with the very best musicals. So, it’s fitting that the current production of “Gypsy” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre does justice to that classic musical.
The impressive score for “Gypsy” has music by veteran composer Jule Styne and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. It’s a textbook example of how to construct a musical biography with bumps-and-grinds honesty, efficient pacing and such expressive songs that the story’s more psychologically jolting aspects are balanced by the beautifully crafted orchestrations one expects from a traditional Broadway show.
The co-directors of the Toby’s production, Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, have assembled a large cast that includes many actors who regularly appear on this stage. That’s an inherent advantage for a highly theatrical show about a life in the theater. From the leading roles right down to the smallest parts, the actors are well-cast and all seem eager to entertain you.
One reason why it’s a big cast is that the early scenes include child actors playing two juvenile vaudeville performers, June and Louise (the eventual Gypsy Rose Lee), and then adult actors play them as young women in the waning days of vaudeville in the 1930s. The time-straddling narrative also means there are quite a few colorful performers, agents, theater owners and others popping up as the years roll by.
Minnick, who also choreographed the show, helps ensure that the story keeps flowing; and the busy flow also is boosted by such creative team members as scenic designer David A. Hopkins, costume designer Janine Sunday, lighting designer Lynn Joslin, sound designer Mark Smedley, and a snappy orchestra conducted by Greg Knauf at the reviewed performance. This particular “Gypsy” has the requisite feathers, sequins and silly dance numbers to satisfy our anticipation of a big and busy show about show business.
However, anybody who loves this musical knows that it all comes down to who is playing Rose, the archetypal stage mother who ruthlessly manages her young daughters’ show business career on the lowest rungs of the vaudeville circuit. It’s a perpetually bracing experience while watching “Gypsy” to see how this single mother narrowly avoids sinking into poverty as she travels the country with her two kids.
Rose is such a stage monster that it’s to the eternal credit of the composer and lyricist that they do not attempt to sugarcoat her personality. Rose’s determination to succeed through her children translates to rude behavior toward everybody in her orbit, and that includes some rather severe stage training for the girls themselves. You’ll doubtless feel sorry for Rose on various levels, but that does not mean that you’ll exactly warm up to her abrasive personality.
The actor who originated this role in the 1959 production, Ethel Merman, had a singing voice that could raise the rafters and a blunt acting style that could put a steamroller to shame. Some other formidable actors have played the role over the decades. It’s so nice to report that the actor playing Rose in the Toby’s production, Cathy Mundy, gives a ferocious performance that verges on being scary.
Mundy’s incisive performance gives the dramatic scenes real depth, and also delivers considerable emotional heft to songs including “Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Small World” and “Rose’s Turn.”
Among others in the large cast, at least two performers must be singled out. As Herbie, the agent who becomes Rose’s boyfriend, David Bosley Reynolds gives a keen sense of how frustrating it would be for any man trying to get Rose to settle into a semblance of an orderly family life. As Louise, MaryKate Brouillet convincingly takes her character from initial insecurity to real self-confidence under the new name of Gypsy Rose Lee.
There are numerous bumps on the road to becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, and you’ll want to be there to see how Louise and her momma handle them.
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“Gypsy” runs through March 17 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com