October 11, 2006.By Ed Huyck, Talkin’ Broadway.
Already one of the Twin Cities most impressive small companies, Theatre Latte Da crafts another triumph with Gypsy, stripping the show down to its vaudevillian core and highlighting the show's strengths - a strong book, music and lyrics; a central story that is both exotic and familiar; and a core group of characters as interesting as any in musical theater. Add to this terrific performances in the show's three central roles, and you get one of the best productions of the year.
The show - crafted by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) - uses the memoirs of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee as inspiration, but the show is as much about the mother Rose as the daughter, Louise. Rose comes off as the worst showbiz mom imaginable, manipulating her two daughters from the very first scene and pushing down Louise in favor of her more talented sister, June. Rose has always wanted to be a success in the theater, so she takes her two daughters on the road as they try to crack the upper echelon of vaudeville. Along the way, they collect a trio of young boys to fill out the act, and they get a manager, Herbie, who has his eyes as much on the oft-divorced Rose as he does the act.
They come close to the top, but Rose's inability to let go of her daughters' careers short circuits that, and as the Depression rages and vaudeville slowly dies, the act makes it way back down the ladder. After June leaves, it is left to Louise - who is much less talented than her sister - to carry the show. Their journey eventually finds the troupe in burlesque, which leads to Louise's more famous persona.
Gypsy centers on Rose and her relationships with Herbie and Louise. The three actors dig into their meaty roles with relish. As Louise, Simone Perrin (who made a vocal splash this summer in Kevin Kling's In Hopes of Claudia) shows she has the acting chops to go with the amazing voice. Louise spends much of the show overshadowed by her mother, but it is clear from early on that there is something strong within the timid girl. Tod Petersen plays off the conflict within Herbie to great effect, showing the inner conflicts that finally come to a head at show's end.
In the end, Gypsy is Rose's show, and Jody Briskey is up to the challenge. The character is "on" from the very first moment, as she enters the auditorium where her daughters are preparing their act. From there, she is a bundle of pure energy, never stopping to examine her situation or what the life is doing to her daughters or herself. Instead, it is all the mad pursuit of top billing. Briskey balances this with the woman inside the bluster - the woman who only wants what is best for her children, even if she can't see that what they want most is to be free to make their own decisions. Add in a terrific voice that nails the character's signature act closers "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" and you have one of the best performances of the year.
Director Peter Rothstein embraces vaudeville here, from on-stage antics (a ventriloquist, plate spinners and bad jokes all make appearances) to the title cards that detail each scene. Rothstein's open stage design, where the costume racks are on stage and the actors often wait for their entrances seated in the back, only adds to the sense of being in a theater of the period, as does the small orchestra, which focuses the attention clearly on the voices.
With each production, Theatre Latte Da continues to explore the heart of musical theater, showing that there is much more than glitz and hit songs in the genre.
Gypsy runs through November 5 at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. Tickets are $15 to $29. For more information, call 651-209-6689 or visit www.latteda.org.