Whether by chance or design, scheduling the opening of Gypsy to coincide with Mother’s Day weekend seemed just another stroke of brilliance by the Shaw Festival’s production team that also chose this mother-daughter musical as the first such offering in the Festival Theatre. The artistic and logistical gamble has paid off like, well, “everything coming up cherries” at the sumptuous modern-day “dens of iniquity” just down the river. If you have but one chance to catch a show at The Shaw this year, look no further and snap up any remaining seats for the hottest ticket on the peninsula.
Reviews like these are both rare and a pleasure to write. Q.: Why is the report so glowing? A: Nora McLellan. From her opening “Sing out, Louise!” stage-mother admonition of her under-loved daughter to their poignant reunion on a stage as bare as a stripper’s “big finish,” McLellan drives the show harder than Rose’s ambition and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the demanding part’s earlier practitioners: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly. Each of those women—notably Merman’s unmatchable voice—brought a different set of talents to the obsessive character’s need to produce a star at any cost; McLellan, with her big voice, know-your-limits dance skills, and mastery of gesture, beats and tone serves up an overbearing, tactless, egomaniac persona that captures every heart in the room.
But even Rose can’t do everything. Director Jackie Maxwell has fashioned a production that has zip, zest and flair. The transitions are spectacular—the aging-by-strobe-light sequence an early gem—and there’s seldom a dull moment as the show moves relentlessly forward. The full-steam-ahead propulsion is aided considerably by Valerie Moore’s stellar choreography. Whether the kids are on tap, or their elders swinging Mr. Goldstone (William Vickers, who revs up convincing jazz hands of his own), the production numbers sizzle at every turn.
But there’s nothing finer on the dance card than Tulsa’s (Jeff Lillico) solo in a Buffalo back alley. In “All I Need Is the Girl,” Lillico first pays his respects to dancers past then “takes stage” with a routine that was as carefully crafted as its delivery—why not build a show around this?!
In the pit, conductor/adapter Paul Sportelli kept his merry band on the rails with only a few over-active syncopations and suspect stratospheric string lines marring the way. However, with reduced orchestration (for both reasons of economics and physical space), it is to wonder why any sound reinforcement was used above or below the stage. With such a huge pool of natural ability at hand, it would be fascinating to hear the show without the “benefit” of modern technology.
The design triumvirate of Peter Hartwell (sets), Judith Bowden (costumes) and Kevin Lamotte (lighting) have conjured up magical effects that are worth the price of admission alone. Who will forget “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” where the three strippers strut their, er, stuff: Mazeppa’s (Gabrielle Jones) Wagnerian breast cones; Tessie’s (Lisa Horner) misfiring G string and Electra’s (Patricia Vanstone) flashing body bulbs that bring new meaning to “Show Me the Way Home?”
W.C. Fields would have hated this show: too many scene-stealing kids and, yes Virginia, live animals—but he’d be the only one. JWR