Gypsy Celebrates Women Who Don't Need To Be Good To Be Great

Jay GablerCity Pages

February 24, 2016

"Used to always stay at home, be a good girl," sings Drake in "Hotline Bling," reminiscing about a time when the woman to whom he's singing focused her attention where he thinks it belongs: on him. The paternalistic line echoes a moment in Gypsy, when a frustrated lover abandons the career-focused Mama Rose with a parting admonition: "Be a good girl."

The role of Mama Rose, the quintessential stage mother, has been the vehicle for indelible performances by Broadway legends, including Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, and Tyne Daly. In this new production, presented by Theater Latté Da and the Hennepin Theatre Trust at the Pantages Theatre, Mama Rose is played with flinty resolve by local legend Michelle Barber.

Mama Rose's daughter — the girl who grows up to become Gypsy Rose Lee, the only performer from the golden age of burlesque who's still a household name — is played by Barber's real-life daughter Cat Brindisi. (Brindisi's father, Barber's husband, is longtime Chanhassen Dinner Theatres artistic director Michael Brindisi.) If the mother-daughter duo have any simmering resentments, they've checked them at the stage door. Director Peter Rothstein finds the warmth in the well-known musical, and doesn't plumb too deeply into its vaunted darkness.

Working from Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs, playwright Arthur Laurents created a family saga — with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim — that starts on the fading vaudeville circuit with little Louise (Carley Clover) playing second fiddle to her creepily infantilized sister June (Victoria Wyffels). When June (played as an adult by Shinah Brashears) elopes with her fellow performer Tulsa (a priceless Tyler Michaels), Louise becomes Mama Rose's new star, reborn as Gypsy Rose.

That's a lot of territory to cover, both chronologically and geographically, and set designer Michael Hoover makes wonderfully effective use of a series of stages-within-a-stage that fly in and out to represent Gypsy's journeys, with show titles and locations projected atop a proscenium to help us keep our bearings. Gypsy's rapid ascent to notoriety, during the song "Let Me Entertain You," is a bravura feat of stagecraft, with the setting (and Brindisi, in various glamorous costumes by Alice Fredrickson) seamlessly transformed in each successive verse.

Barber makes Mama Rose a paragon of on-with-the-show perseverance; while lines that could be gut-wrenching tend to fly by, Mama Rose comes across as a sympathetic striver who earns believable love and devotion from her daughter and from patient paramour Herbie (Tod Petersen). Brindisi's Louise is grounded and empathetic, and we root for her when she comes into her own, even if her burlesque persona doesn't exactly crackle with erotic heat.

Gypsy contains a disproportionate chunk of the Great American Songbook, and Sondheim's music comes alive under music director Denise Prosek, who leads a crack six-piece band. Rothstein and his team do ample justice to this classic material, with its poignant feminist themes that remain as relevant as ever. Arm in arm, Gypsy and Mama Rose don't need a man to tell them what kind of girls to be.


Gypsy Pantages Theatre 710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis Through March 13; 1-800-859-SHOW

Gypsy by Theatre Latté Da, performing in the Pantages

HowWasTheShowBy David and Chelsea Berglund

February 21, 2016


Gypsy, produced by Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust and running at the Pantages through March 13, is exactly the type of show critics relish writing about, or at least these critics. With a poignant book by Arthur Laurents, iconic music by Jule Styne, and smart lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, the story of Mama Rose and her daughters trying to make it big on vaudeville continues to ring true today. And this production is a stunning rendition of the classic show.

First things first, Michelle Barber as Mama Rose absolutely brings down the house. With a cast as tremendously talented as her co-performers, she nevertheless commands the stage while bringing believability and sincerity to her role. Mama Rose is one of the most interesting characters in the musical theater repertoire, and Barber captures every bit of nuance the role offers. This is bound to be one of the best performances of the year – a powerhouse showstopper that is not to be missed.

That’s not to say that her fellow performers are overshadowed. This cast is made up of some of the best young thespians these cities have to offer, and they do not disappoint. Cat Brindisi (also Barber’s real-life daughter) dynamically plays the titular role and displays an extraordinary range of emotion with honesty, both in singing and dialogue. Shinah Brashears portrays “Dainty” June as both a performer with chintzy vaudevillian charm and, offstage, a young woman yearning for a different life during the lovely “If Momma Was Married” duet she shares with Brindisi. Tyler Michaels brings his beautiful voice and trademark physicality to the role of Tulsa, a backstage dreamer who sweeps the girls up in his fantasies. Stage veteran Tod Peterson plays Mama Rose’s love interest and manager, Herbie, and matches Barber at every turn, bringing a fierce protectiveness and warmth to the makeshift “family” of the show.

The whole production soars under Peter Rothstein’s inspired direction. His immersive vision of the decaying world of vaudeville is juxtaposed with the hopes of the characters and allows all of the story’s elements to convey deeper meaning. Mary Shabatura’s electric, textured lighting design likewise underlines the  characters’ misplaced delusions of grandeur. Michael Hoover’s aging, cluttered, yet simple sets captured a sense of mournfulness and history. Denise Prosek’s musical direction swells with energy and emotion and perfectly hits every note. And every other piece of this production, from the intricate costuming by Alice Fredrickson to the the spot-on sound design by Alex Ritter, comes together under Rothstein’s keen eye.

In other words, this is one of those rare productions that works on every level. It is a transportive and engrossing experience from the first note to the last. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to see truly great theater, and for our part, we hope to have shared enough superlatives to convince you to experience it for yourself. Do not miss it.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies at their site Movie Matrimony.

Gypsy produced by Theater Latte Da and the Hennepin Theater Trust

HowWasTheShowBy Janet Preus

February 21, 2016


Theater Latte Da and the Hennepin Theater Trust have partnered up to bring their own Broadway-style version of Gypsy to downtown Minneapolis, and I’m going to make a prediction: This is the Twin Cities show of the year. Yes, go!

The Tony Award-winning Gypsy, which premiered in 1959, chronicles Mama Rose and her obsessive ambition to raise her daughters to show business stardom via the Vaudeville circuit. One would become the famous burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee, not at all what Mama Rose had in mind.

Latte Da’s artistic director, Peter Rothstein, has recreated this iconic show with loving care, featuring all local performers in starring roles. It’s casting perfection. The real-life mother and daughter team, Michelle Barber and Cat Brindisi as Mama Rose and her daughter Louise are exactly right.

Shina Brashears as Louise’s sister, June, finesses an over-the-top role and makes it shimmer in anticipation. With almost imperceptible inevitability, the cracks appear in June’s loyalty to Mama Rose. Her heart is no longer in performing, the relationship collapses and Rose’s tyranny begins its descent.

This is where Barber’s steely portrayal digs in. The light bars tremble, the stage floor rumbles … ok, not really, but you may think they should. Her coup de grace, “Rose’s Turn” has to be the most powerful unraveling written for musical theater. Barber absolutely skewers it, and her strained recovery and redemption is as satisfying as theater gets. Oh, wow, oh wow, oh wow.

Brindisi is so awkward as the young – and overlooked – Louise that it made you wonder just how she’d pull off (so to speak) that ending we knew was coming. Oh, but she did! Sparkling in her own right, and playing her new role as a beauty with brains, Brindisi’s Louise was her mother’s daughter in all the best ways.

Also featured were Tyler Michaels as Tulsa, a role that’s a great fit (at last) for this popular local performer, and Tod Petersen as Herbie, who brought balance to the young performers’ lives, tempering Rose’s drive with genuine affection and concern. He was believable as both a foil for Rose’s character and a partner for the woman he loved.

Emily Jansen, Kate Beahen, Derek Prestly, Matt Rubbelke, Ed Williams and Eriq Nelson were terrific as backup performers and additional roles. I will take issue with one characterization: Eriq Nelson played several roles, each one of them skillfully, but so over-the-top that it felt like those characters were in the wrong show.

A passel of kids as young June’s backups were adorable, which was the point – more underscore for Rose’s autocratic rule over their young lives.

Denise Prosek was music director for a very nice, small and tight, live band. I only wish they had not cut the overture.

It’s been more than half a century since Gypsy first “hit the heights,” and it’s enjoyed a string of revivals since then – so many, in fact that it’s never really gone away. There’s a reason that critics often name it as the greatest American musical. The book (by Arthur Larents) has a perfect arc, the characters and relationships are timeless, and every song (music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim) lands as it should. And who hasn’t heard these songs: “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” “Together (Wherever We Go),” “Small World,” and “Let Me Entertain You”?

Shall I rave on? Rothstein has outdone himself this time – not with more cross-dressing dancers (but there are some), or flashing lights (those, too). He had a clear vision about where he was going and he arrived with grace and wit. Yes, we were entertained and we had a real good time, but we also felt connected to something bigger than just singing and dancing.

See this show. Not just because it’s well done, but because it’s done right, with respect for what made the show great in the first place. This takes humility as artists. But for the audience, the show is lifted from a spectacle to just spectacular. There’s a difference and it’s profound.

Gypsy runs through March 13 at the Pantages Theater. Program notes say that June and Louise’s act performed in the Twin Cities, perhaps at the Pantages itself?

"Gypsy" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

Cherry and SpoonJill Schafer

February 21, 2016


2016 is the fourth year of Broadway Reimagined, the partnership that combines the resources of Hennepin Theatre Trust with the innovation of Theater Latte Da to create a new interpretation of a familiar Broadway musical. This year's selection is a beloved classic of the American musical theater canon, the 1959 Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents creation Gypsy. Theater Latte Da did this musical almost ten years ago in their old home The Loring Playhouse (only my second Latte Da show, I've seen nearly everything they've done since). Even though two actors reprise their roles, as do the director, music director, and choreographer, this is a different show in a bigger venue. And I'm convinced there is no better venue for this show in the Twin Cities than the beautifully restored Vaudeville theater that is the Pantages, where the historical characters in the play very likely performed nearly 100 years ago. There's a sense of history in this show which, along with Theater Latte Da's usual attention to detail in every aspect of the production, creates a beautiful, realistic, moving look into the world of show business and the quintessential stage mother/daughter relationship. As the song says, let Theater Latte Da entertain you, you will have a real good time, yes sir! We first meet* Rose and her daughters Louise and June in an audition, as she famously calls out directions including "sing out, Louise!" Baby June is the star, a pretty and precocious little girl in blond ringlets, and Louise is the older and less talented daughter forced into the shadows. Rose promises her girls she will make them stars, and travels around the country getting them bigger and better gigs with the help of Herbie, their manager who's also an unofficial husband/father figure to the family. Louise and June soon outgrow the little girl act but their mother refuses to let them grow up. A teenage June runs away with one of the boys in the act to form their own act. Herbie and Louise encourage Rose to walk away and concentrate on their family, but Rose is not someone who gives up. She turns all of her focus to making Louise a star in a recycled version of the old act. But Vaudeville is dying, so the act ends up in a Burlesque theater. Rose promises that this will be the last gig and she will marry Herbie and walk away when it's over. But when given the chance to make Louise a star in the Burlesque world, she takes it, and shoves Louise into the spotlight. Surprisingly, Louise takes to this new role and shines, not needing her mother any more. In one of the most famous musical theater songs, Rose makes one final plea to the universe, asking when it will be "Rose's Turn" after all she's sacrificed.

In a genius bit of casting, Peter Rothstein has chosen perhaps the most talented mother/daughter team in the Twin Cities to play Rose and Louise - Michelle Barber and Cat Brindisi. Both are incredible individual talents, Michelle a staple at the Chanhassen as well as other theaters in town, and Cat an up-and-coming young talent. But put them together, and it's really quite something. This is not the first time they've played mother and daughter on stage (see also Spring Awakening), but it's probably safe to say it's the most significant. Like when married couples play married couples, the real-life relationship adds another layer of authenticity to the stage relationship, as you see them mirrored in each other. Cat blooms before our eyes from the awkward teenager to the confident woman and entertainer, and it's obvious where she gets her talent (and her legs!), although she's made it all her own. But even though the show is called Gypsy, Mama Rose is the star of this show (wouldn't she be pleased!), and Michelle is a force of nature as the stage mother to end all stage mothers, with a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching performance of "Rose's Turn."

The rest of the cast ain't too shabby either. The two actors reprising their roles from Latte Da's last production of the show are Tod Peterson, so genuine and charming as Herbie, and Eriq Nelson, stealing scenes with his very specific albeit brief performances as... everyone! Shinah Brashears is a perfect choice for Baby June, and gets to play a bit with other roles as well. Tyler Michaels not only shines as the soft-shoeing Tulsa but also as several other characters, most notably a nonchalant stripper with a cigarette hanging off her lips. Because if you've got Tyler Michaels in a show, might as well have him play as many characters as possible! Emily Jansen and Kate Beahen also make great strippers with a gimmick, just a few of the too many great performances in the ensemble to mention, which also include a talented crop of kids that bode well for the future.

The most significant reimagining comes through in the set design (by Michael Hoover), or rather the set design sets the tone for the reimagining. The entire stage is open to the backstage, piled high with things that you might find stacked in an old theater, and you can see the inner workings of the backdrops and set pieces as they move in and out and up. Peter Rothstein said in an interview, "The Pantages Theatre has 35 batons in its fly loft, all intended for painted scenery. We use every one of them in this production to carry painted drops that are based on historical research and period advertisements." This adds to the authenticity of this story in this space. It feels delightfully and appropriately retro and old-fashioned, as if you're seeing actual Vaudeville acts the way they originally might have been seen. The lighting (by Mary Shabatura) feels appropriate to the period too, with the big stage bulbs surrounding an arch and in the footlights, flashing, brightening, and dimming as called for by the story. Completing the look is the authentic-looking period wardrobe, as well as the flashy Vaudevillian costumes and Loise's layered-for-stripping looks (costume design by Alice Fredrickson).

This dreamy score is full of such favorites as the double entendre that is  "Let Me Entertain You," "You'll Never Get Away From Me" (which I sing to my cats if they try to sneak out the door), "Together Wherever We Go," and of course, "Everything's Coming Up Roses." They all sound great as performed by Denise Prosek's six-piece pit orchestra in an actual pit. And since many of the scenes in the play take place on an actual stage, the pit orchestra and conductor are often mentioned and talked to. And the audience has a role to play too, as Mama Rose encourages us to cheer for Baby June, and Gypse Rose Lee flirts with us, making us feel part of the experience.

The talent in this town is an embarrassment of riches, and kudos to Broadway Reimagined for shining a light on it with this fantastic production of a beloved classic. It was a great weekend for musical theater with the premieres of two must-sees for musical theater fans - the beautifully faithful production of A Chorus Line at the Ordway, and this new and yet retro reimagined Gypsy (playing now through March 13).

‘Gypsy’: A tuneful trip into a tortured mind

Pioneer PressChris Hewitt

February 21, 2016


Rose is an overwhelmingly supportive stage mother, which Theater Latte Da’s “Gypsy” makes clear in an early scene. Her daughters sing and dance while she’s at the edge of the stage, exhorting us to clap in a way that suggests she’ll happily come to our seats and punch us in the face if we don’t.

Abandoned by her mother as a child, Rose has spent her life thinking that everything would be better if she became a star but it’s too late for that now, so she pours her show-biz dreams into her reluctant daughters, bossy June and shy Louise, the latter of whom is willing to try anything if it will make her mom pay attention to her. They want her love, she wants to be a star and nobody is going to get what they want in this bitter-edged backstage musical set in the 1920s, when the talkies were shoving vaudeville aside.

Bitter maybe, but “Gypsy” sweetens the pot with one of the most memorable scores in all of musical theater. Just about everyone will recognize “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You” and “Together Wherever We Go” but this is one of those shows where even song titles that don’t ring a bell, such as “Small World,” sound instantly familiar. Many of them are sung by Michelle Barber as Rose. She’s the only actor who’s on stage from the beginning of the show to its end and, in the sort of phrase the show-biz-obsessed Rose might use, she knocks ’em dead.

Rose is one of the toughest roles in musicals but Barber, a veteran of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and other Twin Cities venues, makes good on Rose’s claim, early in the show, that she’s a pro. Her Rose may be needy and frightening but she also possesses a folksy charm that helps explain why her kids stick by her as long as they do and why their agent, Herbie, worships her.

Barber is the actual mother of Cat Brindisi, who subtly shifts Louise from wallflower to a sort of swan, and that adds the poignancy you might expect to their scenes. But what’s unexpected is that the power and foggy warmth of Barber’s voice — even when she’s pushing a note to indicate her character’s mania, she nails it (“I’m a pro”) — also reveal Rose’s humanity.

The character is often referred to as a monster because she pushes her kids so relentlessly, but Barber’s Rose is not a monster; she’s a human being who has the misfortune to believe that life is not worth living if it isn’t lived on a stage.

That theme is smartly illuminated by Latte Da’s production. We enter to a stage that set designer Michael Hoover has piled with junk, an indication that the era of vaudeville — and, by extension, Rose — is over. All of the action takes place within a false proscenium, blurring the lines between when the characters are on stage and when it’s their “real life.” Director Peter Rothstein takes every opportunity to remind us how seedy that life was in the waning days of vaudeville (which, incidentally, played out in the former vaudeville house where this “Gypsy” is playing, Minneapolis’ Pantages Theatre) but his production also captures the glamour and thrill of show business, whether it’s in a soft shoe performance by the versatile Tyler Michaels or the cheesily glorious lighting effects of Marcus Dilliard.

Some elements don’t quite work: The increasingly crass vaudeville hosts played by Eriq L. Nelson struck me as too broad, for instance. But most of the production’s attention is, as it should be, on Rose. Rothstein has staged her first-act closer, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” as a show-stopper performed while two other characters look on in horror. He has clearly thought hard about how that number relates to the final number in the show, “Rose’s Turn,” where he creates an unforgettable image that, for a moment or two, makes us feel like we are inside Rose’s head at the exact moment when all her dreams are shattering.

In fact, as Rose tries to make her dreams jibe with the welfare of the people she loves, this production gets so far inside her tormented, trapped-in-the-days-of-vaudeville brain that it sometimes seems like Barber’s Rose is bigger and more vivid than anyone else on stage. You may almost think it’s as if she’s in a different show than all of the other characters, and there’s a reason for that: She is.

What: “Gypsy”

When: Through March 13

Where: Pantages Theatre, 510 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.

Tickets: $56.50-$31.50, 800-859-7469 or

Capsule: Insightful and entertaining, this “Gypsy” boasts a galvanic performance by Michelle Barber.

Theater review: Theater Latte Da opens 'Gypsy' in Minneapolis

Star TribuneBy Graydon Royce

February 21, 2016


"Sing out, Louise!"

Momma's voice does not instantly scald the back of our heads as she enters from the rear of the house and shouts at her daughter.

We turn to see a thin cloth coat of a woman, ambling toward the stage where she will orchestrate her children's audition for a cheap kiddie show. She is a nonstop talking machine, a huckster, a conniver — but not the rumbling Army tank with a chain-saw voice we might expect.

In these early moments of Peter Rothstein's production of "Gypsy" at the Pantages Theatre, actor Michelle Barber invites our amusement as Rose. She is pushy, certainly, and manipulative, but Barber sketches the character within very human boundaries. She's not a monster.

But do not despair, you devotees of Ethel Merman and Tyne Daly. Barber's soft entry allows her to grow into the complex character who will snap and howl as she loses control of her world — which consists of her daughters' lives. By the end of the first act she is in twitchy full throttle, declaring ferociously that despite the betrayal of daughter Dainty June, "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

 "Gypsy" — the 1959 creation of Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim — remains among the best of the midcentury book musicals. Based on the memoir of famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, it is steeped in theatrical convention and stuffed with memorable music. And its story is ancient — the child's struggle to leave the nest and fly on her own.

Rothstein and set designer Michael Hoover have opened up the Pantages stage to the back wall, where heaps of props, chairs, desks, rugs, lights, every manner of stage knickknack stack up nearly to the ceiling. A proscenium descends, and it's here that this musical fable, this story of the theater, will be played.

The stagecraft is excellent, with Michael Matthew Ferrell's delicate choreography and lighting designer Mary Shabatura's sense for shade and illumination. The scene in which child actors change into young adults is a trick so slick it draws applause.

Music director Denise Prosek lightly articulates Styne's score and Sondheim's lyrics. Barber's Rose, Tod Petersen's Herbie and Cat Brindisi's Louise make a great team in "Together Wherever We Go." Brindisi and Shinah Brashears as Dainty June romp through the sweet "If Momma Was Married." And Brindisi is poignant in "Little Lamb" and seductive in "Let Me Entertain You."

While we are on the subject, Brindisi demonstrates again what a smart actor she is, beautifully navigating the transformation from plain and insecure Louise into the confident stripper Gypsy (with visual help from costumer Alice Fredrickson). Brindisi, with her heart on her sleeve, waits until it is her moment to dominate this show, and she does that fabulously.

Eriq Nelson, in a neat theatrical convention, plays nine characters, from the grimy kiddie-show host to a wheezing stage manager, a lisping secretary and more emcees than you can shake a pasty at.

Tyler Michaels is charismatic and light-footed as Tulsa, the dancer who pulls Dainty June away from Rose. Petersen's Herbie seems a little too easygoing, not digging to the nub of a man who wants desperately to live a normal life with Rose and her girls.

Which brings us back to Barber. She finds all the panic of a mother who, in the finale "Rose's Turn," realizes who she has become and why. It was for her, not the girls. She wanted to be the star. We start to think: Is there a bit of Rose in all of us?

BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with GYPSY's Peter Rothstein

By Kirsten Hirsch MontagBroadway World Minneapolis

February 18, 2016


Peter Rothstein. In Minneapolis Saint Paul theatre circles, this is a name you've likely heard and read countless times in recent years. Named the Star Tribune Artist of the Year for 2015 recently was just one of his many accolades, and his productions have been receiving raving reviews and standing ovations on the area stages for such shows as OLIVER!, SWEENEY TODD and a stellar production of CABARET, to name but a few.

Next to the Joes at the Big G across town, Rothstein is indeed one of the best known directors in the area. So, getting to talk to him a little about the next collaboration between his Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, GYPSY, is a great opportunity to learn more about his vision and process for the show, which opens Feb. 20 at the Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Get a glimpse into Rothstein's thoughts in this 6 Questions & a Plug:

Let's start with something I've often wondered: when I read a production has been "re-imagined," I am curious what that means. Could you describe how the Theater Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust shows are "re-imagined," and specifically how that is applying to GYPSY?

I think the original production of a Broadway musical, especially if it's a success, leaves an indelible mark on the piece. The work of the original creative team (designers, directors, choreographers...) often has a lasting impact on a given work. It's hard to imagine A CHORUS LINE without gold top-hats and tails for example, or LES MISERABLES without a revolving stage. With Broadway Reimagined we try to approach the conceptual process as if it were a brand new musical, honoring the work's history but, hopefully, realizing it in a new light.

How do you choose which shows you will stage each year with Hennepin Theatre Trust; is this a collaborative decision or do you get to determine which shows you think will be the next big thing in the Twin Cities?

It is a collaborative process between the two organizations.

From what I've read you like to do shows that you find relevant for the current times - how is GYPSY that for us right here, right now?

There are some shows that have a specific simpatico with a given moment in history and other shows that I believe transcend time. In my opinion, GYPSY is the latter. While it is centered around a singular family and a distinct period in history, I believe the story is a fascinating exploration of the American psyche. What exactly is the American Dream and how is it intrinsically linked to fame and fortune? What is the line of separation between a parent's dream for their children and the children's own aspirations?

You are performing in the not-often-used Pantages Theatre, a former Vaudeville house that's celebrating its centennial this year, and using painted backdrops, which I actually find I miss in this age of digital video screens and multimedia productions. Tell me how you're taking advantage of these things with this show that takes place during the same period. Will audiences feel transported to the time and place of Gypsy Rose Lee?

I often begin the design process by asking my team, if the characters were left to their own devices what tools would they have to tell their story? We know Mama Rose and her children traveled by train with all of scenery and costumes packed in old steam trunks for most of their career. Our production embraces that reality. Mama Rose's luggage is omnipresent in our production; a vaudevillian parallel to Mother Courage and her cart. The Pantages Theatre has 35 batons in its fly loft, all intended for painted scenery. We use every one of them in this production to carry painted drops that are based on historical research and period advertisements.

We also expose the entire stage and all of its mechanics. There are no curtains masking the sides of the stage; the audience can see all of the scenery and props waiting in the wings as well as the crew pulling the ropes to fly the scenery in and out. There is also no masking above the stage so all of the scenery is exposed in its "out" position high above the stage.

We are quite certain that Baby June and her Newsboys performed at this theater while touring the Pantages circuit. The production often has a haunting quality, as if we are conjuring their ghosts, welcoming them back to this incredible room.

You've also had a lot of experience with casts with lots of children at the Children's Theatre Company and in shows like Oliver! GYPSY has a high percentage of children actors, too. How is it working with groups of kids in a professional show with a month-long run? And, do you feel that the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area is becoming a training ground for the theatre world?

I love working with kids; their enthusiasm is infectious. I really don't treat the child actors any different than the adults when it comes to the rehearsal process. They are held to the same standards and they always rise to the occasion. The Twin Cities has been a training ground for the theater world for the last fifty years. We are so fortunate to have the nation's largest and most celebrated children's theater company in our community, not only developing the next generation of theater artists, but exposing thousands of young people to the magic of theater each year.

Sometimes you revisit a production that you have previously produced (GYPSY, All is Calm, Sweeney Todd). When you bring a show back, do you re-work it at all or just recreate the magic and try to recapture audiences' interest from the first go-round?

I love being able to revisit a given show, especially when it's a work as rich as GYPSY. It is never a simple remount. I would never deny the actor the opportunity to bring themselves to a given role. Michelle Barber's Mama Rose is very different from Jody Briskey's, who did the production with Theater Latté Da in 2007. Tod Petersen is reviving the role of Herbie, but this Herbie is very different because he is playing opposite a new Mama Rose. My job is to get people in the room together and facilitate a process that leads to authentic action and reaction. If the actors are doing their job, the production can't help but change.

I also adjust a "remount" to the given space. There are things you can do in a small space that just don't translate to a larger venue and vice versa. The Pantages was built for Vaudeville so there's a beautiful simpatico for this particular show and we are trying to maximize that.

Time for a plug for your next big thing. Many of us have heard about the remount of SWEENEY TODD, what don't we already know that you can tell us? Or, give some insight into what you'd like to do next professionally.

I love being able to direct true masterpieces like SWEENEY TODD, and there are still a lot of shows on my bucket list. But I am even more excited about new work and bringing together playwrights, composers and lyricists to create something wholly original. Theater Latté Da recently launched NEXT 20/20, which is a commitment to develop 20 new musicals or plays with music between now and the year 2020. Hopefully you will be seeing the world premiere of a host of new musicals in the coming years.


Tickets for GYPSY

GYPSY runs Feb. 13-March 13, 2016, at the Pantages Theatre as part of the Broadway Re- Imagined Series. Tickets range from $31.50-$56.50 (subject to change) depending on performance time and seating preference. Tickets may be purchased in person at the State Theatre Box Office, 805 Hennepin Avenue, Mpls., 55402 (no service fees), online at, through Ticketmaster by calling 1.800.982.2787 or visiting a Ticketmaster Ticket Center.

Everything’s coming up ‘Gypsy’ for music director Denise Prosek

Chris HewittPioneer Press

February 17, 2016

One hallmark of music director Denise Prosek’s work is that, despite her title, she is not at all precious about the music in a show.

“I will cut music. I will edit music. I will change keys to make a song work. For me, the music is all in service to the story we’re trying to tell and, if it’s not, then why is it there?” says Prosek, music director for Theater Latte Da, which opens a new production of “Gypsy” on Saturday. “If somebody is on stage singing and it doesn’t advance the story, then what’s the point? I’m a big believer in that.”

It’s a point of view Prosek, 47, has been honing since she and Latte Da artistic director (and “Gypsy” director) Peter Rothstein were doing musical theater together at Grand Rapids Senior High School. She was two years behind Rothstein in school and, she claims, further behind when it came to acting talent.

“I was a terrible actor. I think in all of the shows I was in over the years, I had a total of one line. I just didn’t understand about enacting a character — or, I understood it from the outside but I didn’t understand how to get in and embody a character,” says Prosek, who felt like her insecurities were confirmed when her high school’s theater director took her aside at an audition and said, “Denise, let’s try you on the piano for this show.”

In a way, Prosek had already been behind that piano for years — she started playing when she was 4 — and she’s still there, determining how the music should work for dozens of productions throughout the Twin Cities, whether it’s directing the music for Mu Performing Arts’ “Into the Woods” or arranging the orchestrations for Park Square Theatre’s “The Color Purple.”

Most recently, it led to Latte Da’s triumphant “Sweeney Todd,” a show that combined trained musicians with lead actors who were a little out of their comfort zones when it came to singing.

“Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen would be the first to tell you they’re not known as singers,” Prosek notes. (The actual comment from Wingert, who also did Latte Da’s “Cabaret,” is, “I have no business being in a musical. None. But I could go on and on about how Denise supported me both times I did musicals with Latte Da.”)

On the one hand, Prosek says the younger performers in “Sweeney Todd” — which will be revived, with the same cast, in March 2017 — were awed to be working with stage vets Wingert and Benninghofen. On the other hand, Wingert and Benninghofen were tackling huge jobs.

“It was about working with them to make sure they knew the language of what we were all talking about when we’d say ‘measure 45, beat 19’ or whatever. They were vulnerable, coming into this situation where they were surrounded by people who do read music and have studied it, so you want them to not worry about being embarrassed or trying things,” says Prosek, who often negotiates similar issues as a music director.

It’s a career Prosek, who attended St. Olaf College with the plan to be an accompanist, says only happened because the universe made it happen.

“I was working at Schmitt Music (in Minneapolis) one day when (legendary Twin Cities music director) Anita Ruth came in. We were chit-chatting and she said, ‘You should take one of my classes,’ so I did, and then (Chanhassen Dinner Theatres music director) Alan Shorter was in one day, too, and we were talking and I ended up working with him out at Chanhassen,” recalls Prosek, who had been prevented from her plan to attend grad school by a broken arm and had come to the Twin Cities in search of opportunity.

She quickly learned the job of a music director, which she describes as “hiring musicians, making sure the notes are right, trying to keep people happy. Also, the thing I’ve learned is really important is paying attention to the dramatic element, the idea that the actors should feel supported and comfortable or else the audience will feel their discomfort in the performances.”

After assisting others, Prosek’s first gig as a music director was in Garrison, Iowa, at a creamery that had been converted into a theater. The show was “Nunsense 2” and it was a major learning experience.

“I made a lot of mistakes, in terms of understanding boundaries and communicating,” Prosek says. “I remember, when I drove in I thought I was in the wrong place but then I saw a sign that said, ‘Garrison, population 350,’ that someone had crossed off and written ‘351,’ so I thought, ‘Am I supposed to cross that out and write ‘352’ now that I’m here?’ ”

Prosek reconnected with her high school collaborator Rothstein in 1994, when the performing apprentices at Children’s Theatre Company asked the pair to help them assemble a production of the revue “And the World Goes Round,” to showcase their performing skills. It was such a hit that they ended up re-staging it at Bryant Lake Bowl, then creating several other revues, then deciding to start Theater Latte Da in 1998.

Oh, and about that name …

“Peter and I have different versions of this and I don’t remember his but mine is that he came to my door one day — and this is so him, where, if he has an idea, he immediately goes to other people and says, ‘What do you think about this idea?’ — so he came and he suggested the name, ‘Latte Da,’ ” recalls Prosek. “I liked it a lot at the time. I still like it a lot. And, in those days, our audience was really uptown and hip and younger and, obviously, drank a lot of lattes, so it seemed like a good fit.”

So did the pairing of Rothstein and Prosek, although Prosek notes that the collaboration that has extended over more than three decades is not without the occasional bump.

“I always joke that it’s like a marriage. My husband and I don’t fight much, but Peter and I bicker and make up all the time,” says Prosek, who lives in Crystal with finance director Milton Ferris and their two kids.

These days, Prosek and Rothstein have been bickering and making up over “Gypsy.” It’s Latte Da’s second production of the show but it’s an all-new take that is inspired by the idea that the classic Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim musical — in which stage mom Rose bullies daughters Louise and June into the show biz career that eluded her — takes place during the years when vaudeville was dying.

“It’s a show about the last days of vaudeville, in a way, and we’re doing it at the Pantages Theatre, which used to be an old vaudeville house. How cool is that?” Prosek asks. “When audiences walk in, they’ll see that the designers have piled junk on the stage, so there’s already this idea of the decay of vaudeville, right off the bat.”

Adding extra interest to the production is that central characters “Mama” Rose and daughter Louise are played by real-life mother and daughter Michelle Barber and Cat Brindisi, who also played mother and daughter in Latte Da’s “Spring Awakening.”

Once “Gypsy” is up and running, Prosek will already be involved in several other projects, none of which would have happened, she thinks, if not for events like that gentle nudge toward the piano and that fortuitous meeting with Anita Ruth at Schmitt Music.

“Anita Ruth forged the way for so many women in the Twin Cities, getting them involved and saying, ‘Hey, this is OK for you to do this.’ I can’t think of anyone else who has done anything like that around here,” Prosek says.

Which is maybe why, as Prosek’s answers to our nine questions reveal, she’s intent on paying it forward:

Q. What would you do if you had a million dollars?

A. Start a foundation for women musical theater directors. It’s not that I think anybody is trying to keep women out. I just think it’s the way you hear about jobs and the way you meet people that sometimes keeps women out — like, in the ’60s, men would meet each other on the golf course or wherever and women simply weren’t there.

Q. Where is your favorite place to be?

A. At home with my family.

Q. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

A. I have a boring life! My first flight overseas was scary. I hadn’t flown until I was an adult and I was scared to death.

Q. What was your first job?

A. I was a waitress for the Frontier Steak and Shake in Grand Rapids.

Q. What are you thinking about when you’re about to begin a project?

A. I’m not the greatest communicator always. Language eludes me. So I always want to walk in and know I’ll be able to hear what I need to hear but also be able to communicate quickly what I need. I always hope I’m being articulate enough that we can accomplish what we want to accomplish. I get nervous about that.

Q. Who would play you in a movie?

A. Jodie Foster.

Q. What’s the best thing about your job?

A. The people, absolutely.

Q. What’s your motto?

A. It’s not exactly a motto but I guess I try to live and work as intentionally as possible.

Q. Who do you most admire?

A. Meryl Streep. Oh, and Mary-Mitchell Campbell, who’s a music director in New York. The thing I love about Meryl Streep is that it just feels to me that she’s constantly willing to put herself out there, much like Sally Wingert is, saying, “I might not be the best at this but I’m going to do it,” and she succeeds. Mary-Mitchell Campbell is also so driven and wants to do better for the world. She’s one of those people who puts themselves out there and doesn’t worry about judgment, which I admire because I do worry about being judged and I need to let that go. I’m going to work on that for the rest of my life, so I admire people who don’t let that affect their work.


What: “Gypsy”

When: Through March 13

Where: Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.

Tickets: $56.50-$31.50, 800-859-7469 or



5Q: Gypsy

Shane LueckLavender Magazine

February 15, 2016

Broadway Re-Imagined returns withIn an all-new production, Gypsy, lauded by critics as the greatest American musical. Directed by the nationally acclaimed Peter Rothstein, the production stars a local cast including the mother–daughter powerhouse team of Michelle Barber and Cat Brindisi, and the Ivey Award-winning Tyler Michaels. Gypsy is the story of Mama Rose, the mother of all stage mothers, and her ambition to raise two daughters in show business during a time when vaudeville was giving way to burlesque. The Tony Award-winning show, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, boasts some of the most memorable songs ever written—“Everything’s Coming up Roses,” “Together (Wherever We Go)” and “Let Me Entertain You.”

Denise Prosek has worked extensively as a music director, pianist, and arranger in the Twin Cities for the past twenty years, including forty mainstage productions for Theater Latté Da. She has also music directed for Children’s Theatre Company, the Guthrie, Park Square, Mu Performing Arts, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Hennepin Theatre Trust, and the Ivey Awards, among others. Denise was named Lavender‘s Best Music Director in 2010 and Theater Artist of the Year in 2012.

A lot of people know the title of music director, but don’t realize what it means. How would you describe the role of music director and what creative passion do you bring to the process? Denise Prosek: In the most general of terms, a music director oversees and is responsible for all things music in a production by collaborating with the actors to develop their musical role, teaching melodies and harmonies, and rehearsing and conducting the band. As a part of the creative team, we work closely with the director and choreographer to ensure that the music is a primary part of the storytelling. Personally, I am extremely interested in how the music drives the story and that every choice is true to the character and to the plot. When the character chooses to sing, it must emerge from the dialogue leading up to the first note. Are they frustrated? Giddy? Overcome with grief? That must be how the song is portrayed and sung, and if done with full intention, will viscerally affect every audience member.

I also love being able to re-orchestrate for the orchestra and finding new and interesting colors that help support the overall arc of the musical. Picking instruments to represent characters or mood and seeing it affect the storytelling of the whole piece is invigorating.

What gets you excited about working on Theater Latté Da’s current production, Gypsy? DP: It’s always exciting to work with Peter Rothstein and seeing his vision of a show come to life on stage. This particular production is filled with powerhouse singers, and having Michelle Barber and Cat Brindisi (real life mother and daughter) playing the mother and daughter iconic characters is magic. They are unbelievably talented, smart, and kind, that they bring such truth to the roles of Mama Rose and Gypsy Rose Lee. Revisiting this show after 10 years is a joy. And because I’m 10 years older, I’m able to invest in the material with a more mature eye.

How do you approach each show, especially reimagining Broadway shows as part of this partnership with Hennepin Theatre Trust? DP: My process starts early with listening to recordings of various productions, getting a sense of the history of the piece. I look at how many musicians I have in the band, and what orchestral colors I will need. Once I’ve done that, I throw the recordings away so I can walk into the rehearsal room with an informed but blank slate in order to make choices that are right for our production. Reimagining Broadway is such a treat because we are giving ourselves permission to look at each musical with a fresh eye. Gypsy has put its stamp on the musical canon with performances by legends of the theater, starting with Ethel Merman in the original production. The book is phenomenal, and the music and lyrics create a vaudeville world for the characters to live in. I try to discover musically how to honor the intentions of the creators while making choices that uplift the show for today’s audiences.

Without giving too much away, what can audiences expect from the reimagined Gypsy? DP: With an amazing cast and orchestra led by Peter Rothstein and choreographed by Michael Matthew Ferrell, audiences are in for a treat! It’s filled with great dances, breakout songs, and incredible performances. But it’s the story that they take home with them. It’s about family, relationships, how to choose a life that is outside of societal norms, not letting any obstacles get in the way of your dreams, and ultimately finding out if that dream was worth it.

Why do you think Gypsy is revered as the greatest American musical? DP: Gypsy is complex, fun, entertaining, and authentic. Mama Rose is an iconic character, but she is real, has real dreams and desires, but struggles with being put in a box by her father, by her husbands, and by society. Because of the depth of her passion, her relationship with her two daughters is difficult to say the least. Every person in the world has to make sacrifices for their passion. The question is always balance, and that’s a difficult tight rope to walk without the advantage of hindsight. We experience through Rose every emotion, every regret, and every success we all make in our own lives.


Gypsy runs at the Pantages Theatre through March 13. For more information and to purchase tickets, head to