SALT LAKE CITY — As a theater veteran, it is surprising that I have never seen a production of Gypsy before I attended the closing night show at Westminster College. I have, however, been exposed to the show-stopping musical numbers and iconic characters, and am aware of the great critical acclaim the show has received. Many critics and patrons alike have even said that Gypsy is the greatest musical ever written, garnering it numerous awards and nominations. For a musical with as much hype surrounding it as Gypsy has, I am disappointed that Westminster’s lackluster version was my introduction to the musical.
Gypsy, written in 1959 by Arthur Laurents, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is loosely based on the life and memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous striptease artist who lived at the end of the burlesque era in the early twentieth century. The story focuses on Rose (played by Carissa Klitgaard), the mother of June (Carlie Young) and Louise (Amanda Corbett), who later changes her name to Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy is loved not only for the charming characters and catchy songs, but for the substantial themes that are examined. Rose pushes her daughters into the life she’s dreamed for herself and lives through their successes. June is blonde and beautiful and the obvious favorite, while Louise is overlooked and babied. Rose is ambitious to a fault, ultimately leading to her downfall. She is not content living like the other women she describes, who “cook and clean and sit and die.” Even still, as a middle aged woman and a mother, she feels it is too late for herself to do something great, so she places this burden on her daughters in order to be fulfilled. While Rose truly loves her children, she pushes them away through her need for acceptance and recognition. After Rose spends years creating vaudeville acts for her daughters to perform in, June eventually leaves to pursue a legitimate acting career and Rose, undeterred, turns the spotlight on Louise. With the help of Herbie (Nate Jacob), Rose’s lover and agent, they end up accidentally booking a gig at a burlesque house to perform their vaudeville act. Louise soon becomes tempted by burlesque, and sheepishly begins her career as a stripper.
While most of the acting in this production was mediocre, it was the lack of chemistry throughout it that especially made the performances not work for me. I was bored with Rose and Herbie’s relationship from the beginning, and I never felt they truly connected. This was similar of all of the relationships within the show. Even though the number “If Mama Was Married” was staged well, with June and Louise playfully recounting their experiences and wishes, I could not believe they were actually sisters. Similarly, I never felt a genuine mother-daughter relationship between Rose and Louise.
This lack of chemistry could be, in part, caused by the leading actors not able to fully come into their roles. In the same way that I could not conceive the reality of the relationships between the characters, I was not able to truly envision the actors as the characters they played. As Rose, Klitgaard first came on stage with high energy and a funny and charismatic personality, particularly in the musical number “Some People.” As the show progressed, I was less and less entertained by her. Klitgaard’s Rose seemed a bit simple, and I was never able to form a connection with her, causing me not to care much about her journey or tribulations. I saw promise in Klitgaard, but unfortunately she did not fully capture such a complex and iconic character here. Corbett, as Louise, was better and the highlight of the show. I actually enjoyed seeing her character’s journey, which may be one of the most dramatic in the theatre. Louise takes on many forms, and Corbett tackles each of them well. She plays the mentally young and spirited Louise realistically, particularly in “All I Need is the Girl.” In this song it is clear that she wants to be her counterpart’s dancing partner, but she is conflicted and doesn’t know how to act her age. This makes it even more impressive to see how she is able to transition into her assertive and confident stripper persona in the second act.
One of the weakest areas of the production was the poor music direction by Anne Puzey. I try not to be too critical of musical elements because actors engage in multiple shows and their bodies cannot be expected to perform perfectly every time. However, in this case, the actors’ singing voices were not suitable for the roles. The leading actors struggled to reach more difficult notes and to maintain harmonies. One notable example of this was the song “If Mama Was Married.” I did not enjoy most of the singing in the production.
The direction by Jared Larkin was also flawed. One of the most fundamental issues with the directing was that it was not engaging. I found myself bored and wishing for a faster pace and higher energy often during the show. Larkin employed some unnecessary effects, such as the use of a strobe light. While this was effective in letting the audience know that time had passed, it seemed strange and out of place. The bawdy nature of the musical number “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” also seemed to come out of nowhere without being previously set up. This is true of all of the action after this point as well. The first half of the show appeared to be too cheesy and light to set up and prepare for the much heavier thematic content in the second act. While the first act seemed to drag, the overall energy picked up in the second act, and Larkin was able to successfully add some moments of humor throughout. My favorites of these appeared during the song “Dainty June and her Farmboys,” which also skillfully demonstrated how the kids in the vaudeville act are obviously too old to be doing that number.
Although Westminster’s Gypsy was fairly unimpressive, what struck me was the story itself. Louise is awkward and shy during her first striptease, but once she gains attention, she feels a void has been filled and she can finally take control of herself, her feelings, and her desires. It is not long before she blossoms and becomes the biggest star in the business. She is all grown up and no longer in need of her mother shaping her life for her. It can be easily argued that this happens because of Louise’s broken childhood and young mentality, which causes her to fall so easily into burlesque. It can be disheartening to think that all it takes for this young woman to take her clothes off and entertain for a living is the first exciting recognition from a man. However, due to her constant feelings of always being second rate her entire life, and never being allowed to grow up, it is also empowering for her that she is able to break from those chains and become a star in her own right, adored and loved by herself and others. As for Rose, her dreams are unrealized and she is left to examine her relationship with her daughter and the motives and results of her actions. This conclusion ultimately examines many themes, such as the effect of parenthood on a child and the length people will go to fulfill their needs to be loved and accepted. While these ventures may be considered good or bad, it is undeniable to see how they affect relationships. The viewer has cause to determine what is most important in life, and what may be lost if they spend their lives searching after the wrong thing.
Though Gypsy was not a solid production, I will give credit to the director’s self-proclaimed goal to make the audience think, as stated in the program. The second act of Gypsy was strong enough that I was able to grasp the important themes, and I did leave the theatre thinking about the content I had just seen and experienced. Consequently, I was able to determine feelings and opinions about the ideas that were presented, contemplating the significance of those thoughts as well. At any rate, that is a measure of success.