PALM CANYON THEATRE REVIVAL OF THE MUSICAL “GYPSY” IS A GLITTERING TRIUMPH

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By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

The American musical has gone through many iterations, and changes in structure and content over the last one hundred years.

In the 1940’s the American musical created a unique American art form – known as the ‘book musical’ which combined the acting, singing, and a narrative storyline resulting in a blended, linear, modern, vernacular, script and a presentation style that had reigned supreme for almost 75 years. When “Oklahoma”, the first book musical burst on the stage, it blew everyone away with the new performing style that we still see today… until “Hamilton”, that is.  But that’s another review for another day.

In 1959 the creative and most successful musical writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein we’re gathering the best of Broadway writers, directors, choreographers, to produce a musical about the early days of show business on Broadway and the various touring “road show” companies that were then in vogue.

Initially, no one wanted to sign on to a new show called “Gypsy: A Musical Fable”.  Ultimately, the musical did come together under the music of Jule Styne, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the libretto written by Arthur Laurents going on to have six different revivals of touring companies worldwide over the years. “Gypsy”, would win tons of Tony Awards, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Obies, and Academy Awards for the movie version.  The musical is now considered to be the gold standard when it comes to structure in creating the American musical play. It’s pure musical theatre at its best with songs that resonate with millions of audiences that are funny, poignant, uplifting, and flat-out entertaining.

The Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) has a successful track record of presenting quality performances, colorful sets, gorgeous costumes, and talented singers and actors for over 20 years.  “Gypsy”, is directed and choreographed by Derik Shopinski, who brings his many theatrical skills to the production. Boasting a cast of 30 performers, Shopinski, who also costumed the production along with his team of costume magicians that include: Kathryn Ferguson, Virginia Sulick, and Char Childs, and an army of seamstresses that fill the stage with colorful and glittering costumes that are a visual feast for the eyes.

The story of Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the country’s most famous striptease artists, is loosely based on Ms. Lee’s 1957 memoirs and on focuses on Gypsy’s quintessential Show Biz stage mother Mama Rose Hovick played by a sensational Jaci Davis, in a tour de force star turn.  Rose is determined to raise her two daughters June (Allegra Angelo) and Louise (Elizabeth Schmelling) to become performers on the road trip vaudeville circuits and then to Broadway. She lives vicariously in show business through June and Louise.

One day, while attending auditions for a local comic who is looking for kid acts to join his troupe, Rose meets salesman Herbie (Tom Warrick).  Herbie is intrigued by Rose’s energy and force nature personality.  Rose quickly recruits him into becoming the Act’s manager. From this point we follow the kids through songs and skits during their growing years; even into their late teens.  Regardless, the act always performs the same – as kid performers despite their obvious older ages.  To borrow the song lyric from “Damn Yankees” “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets”; applies to the demands of Mama Rose when it comes to June and Louise and the Act, making Herbie’s job as Manager, all the more difficult when trying to book a kid’s show performed by teenagers.

In Act Two, June has eloped with Tulsa (Mat Tucker), (a male dancer from the act), leaving Rose devastated and heartbroken.  June, as the baby in the act, was always Rose’s favorite. Now she must figure out their next move. In the meantime, Herbie, inadvertently books the act into a Burlesque house, setting off Rose and putting Herbie and Rose at odds on what to do about the act and about their own future plans as a married couple.

Louise settles the issue by declaring that she will honor the booking and go on stage herself.  After much discussion Rose agrees to allow Louise to perform… but with no stripping. “Remember, you’re a lady dancing on a stage.”  This launches the career of Gypsy Rose Lee who goes on to stardom at Minsky’s on Broadway in New York City, becoming a star and a celebrity in the process.

The real beauty of this stellar production lies in the performances of the entire cast. But the heavy lifting by the principal performers gives this splendid production an extra boost and it’s exciting to watch.  Jaci Davis as Rose brings down the house in the terrific musical number called “Rose’s Turn”.  It’s an explosive, high octane performance riff on driving out Rose’s jealousy demons and her life’s disappointments.

Louise, now known as Gypsy Rose Lee, is brilliantly portrayed by Elizabeth Schmelling.   From shy, introverted Louise, Ms. Schmelling turns Gypsy into an icon of American show business.  Her stage chemistry with Rose and her sister Baby June is palpable.  June, vivaciously played by Allegra Angelo shines in the musical numbers when June and Louise talk about the day Rose and Herbie tie the knot, in a sweetly sung, two-part harmony number called “If Mama Was Married”. There’s a lot of good work taking place on the PCT stage in this production.

There are so many wonderful songs and numbers that it’s impossible to leave the theatre without humming, at least some of the 17 terrific songs, most of which became platinum in the 60’s  Tom Warrick as Herbie, one of the Valley’s finest character actors, delivers a solid, sympathetic performance as the love interest of Rose.  With a cast of 30 performers it’s difficult to list everyone, but there always standouts, and they include:  The Specialty Act of strippers consisting of Morgana Corelli as Mezzepa, Elissa Landi as Tessie Tura, and Denise Carey as Electra. Mat Tucker as dancer Tulsa, Alan Berry as theatre cigar smoking producer Weber, Natalia Fernandez as loyal Agnes, Frank Catale as Uncle Jocko.

If not a first, then it’s a rarely seen on stage performance by Palm Canyon Theatre Founding Director, Dr. William Layne as Pop, Rose’s father.  Special kudos also go the youngsters who portray the kid actors. They help in making the audience harken back to their own childhood experiences in school plays when some were first bitten by the acting bug.  “Gypsy” is a show that resonates with everyone on some level.

The musical accompaniment is under the baton of Musical Director and pianist Steven Smith, with Larry Holloway on Bass, and David Bronson on Drums.  The Set Design and Lighting Designers J.W. Layne and Kay Van Zandt provide the right amount of mood lighting that does justice to the wonderful costumes of director Shopinski and his staff.

“Gypsy: A Musical Fable” performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre and runs through May 20, 2018.  Don’t Miss It!.

All Photos by Paul Hayashi.