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.
When: Through March 13
Where: Pantages Theatre, 510 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
Tickets: $56.50-$31.50, 800-859-7469 or hennepintheatretrust.org
Capsule: Insightful and entertaining, this “Gypsy” boasts a galvanic performance by Michelle Barber.