Monday, September 19, 2016

An Intimate, Intense "Gypsy"

Gypsy -- Music Theatre of Connecticut -- Thru Sept. 25

Kirsti Carnahan and Kate Simone. All photos by Joe Landry

Kevin Connors, Music Theatre of Connecticut’s co-founder and executive artistic director, has proven time and again that big is not always better. Several years ago, when MTC was still in its old (and more restricted) digs, he staged a gripping Cabaret just mere feet from the audience. Now relocated in Norwalk with a bit more space to work with, Connors again reveals that size, at least in the case of stage space, does not matter, for he has turned Gypsy into an intense character study, albeit with music, that heightens the conflict inherent in the show and showcases some pretty impressive performances.

Anyone familiar with American musical theater knows the Gypsy story-line. Suffice it to say that it’s the ultimate stage-mother show, a fable about a mother driven to have her children succeed in show business (all the while repressing her own desire to be a star). Bridging several decades, the show also chronicles the decline of vaudeville, a fate that Mama Rose eventually accepts, but it does not staunch her passions and drive. Eventually, her two daughters would succeed, with Baby June becoming an actress (June Havoc) and Louise the queen of burlesque (Gypsy Rose Lee).

Of course, any theatrical production is a collaborative effort, and although Connors is to be applauded for his staging and directing, as is Becky Timms for her choreography, neither one could have done it alone – and they are not alone in this enterprise, for Connors has been blessed with an exceedingly talented group of performers.

Although the show’s title is Gypsy, this is really Mama Rose’s story, and you couldn’t ask for a more visceral, multi-layered performance of the driven matron than what Kirsti Carnahan provides. No, she’s not a “belter” a la Ethel Merman, who originated the role, but given the confines of MTC, “belting” out a song is not necessary. Rather, she, under Connor’s guidance, gives a gripping performance as a woman driven, and since the audience is so close she doesn’t have to telegraph her character’s emotions – and there are emotions aplenty. It’s a complete performance, so much so that Rose’s signature songs are, if not superfluous, at least secondary to the marvelous character Carnahan creates. This is no more in evidence than in the show’s finale, “Rose’s Turn.” It is haunting, frightening, tender and totally gripping. I’ve seen many Gypsy productions, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as riveted as I was when Carnahan revealed a soul in dire distress, questioning all Mama Rose had done and all she had forsaken, giving us a woman on the brink of despair. Her double-take, hands fluttering, as she comes out of her fantasy to realize Gypsy has been watching her is a little piece of acting perfection.

Carnahan’s performance is enough to carry the show, but she doesn’t have to, for she is surrounded by some equally talented actors. Chief among them is Kate Simone as Louise, the second-fiddle to her younger sister who morphs into a burlesque star. The role requires that Louise, initially shy and, as she believes, under-talented, rise to confront her mother and demand that Mama Rose take a hard look at herself. Simone hits all the right notes, and her confrontation with Rose late in the second act is pitch-perfect, and she is exceptionally engaging (watch her eyes!) during the rehearsal of “Madame Rose’s Toreadobales,” a lame rehash of the same routine Rose has been pushing for years.
Joe Grandy, Carissa Massaro and Chris McNiff

Equally on the mark is Carissa Massaro’s Baby June, for Massaro must play the part of a winsome, overly-cute child while she is actually a young woman who loathes what she is being forced to do at the behest of her mother. Her duet with Simone, “If Momma Was Married,” lets her convey all of this revulsion through song, something she does quite well.

Then there’s the much-put-upon Herbie, Mama Rose’s love interest, played by Paul Binotto (who does double-duty as “Uncle Jocko” early in the show). He must be the hand that attempts to gentle Rose’s raging ambition, and he does so with a great deal of panache, absorbing the energy that surges from Carnahan’s Mama Rose until his character has had enough and he breaks with Rose in a touching scene. His last line is filled with pain and loss.

As anyone familiar with Gypsy knows, Tulsa, here played by Joe Grandy, has a signature scene with Louise as he tells her, through dance, of his dreams for a dance routine that will allow him to break away from Mama Rose’s control. His “All I Need is the Girl” number covers MTC’s entire stage as he tap-dances his hopes and desires.
Marca Leigh, Jodi Stevens, Jeri Kansas and
Kate Simone.

What is most revealing in this scaled-down production is the iconic scene near the end of the second act when the three strippers, Tessie Tura (Jeri Kansas), Electra (Marca Leigh) and Mazeppa (Jodi Stevens) give Louise some advice about the fine art of stripping. Again, having seen quite a few productions of this show, I was amazed at the finely honed, comedic turns each of these actors gives to her role. What could have been a “Yeah, yeah, seen that before” moment seemed fresh and vibrantly alive – and totally enjoyable.

MTC’s production is truly a Gypsy re-envisioned, downscaled to fit the confines of the stage but still larger than life. If there is one misstep, and this is a very minor quibble, it is during Rose’s final number when she fantasizes about what she might have accomplished on her own. As she wraps up her number the curtains part to reveal a drop-down sign that is supposed to emblazon Rose’s name – instead, you have to look close to figure out what the hell that thing is hanging above Rose’s head. Surely something could have been done to “glitz it up” a bit.

Even for those who think they “know” Gypsy, MTC’s production is well worth a look-see, if for no other reason than to shiver and shake as Rose’s single-minded ambition and almost maniacal determination washes over you. It’s an intense theatrical experience that you don’t want to miss.

Gypsy runs through September 25. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit:

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