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Theater Review - "Gypsy"

Theater Review – ‘Gypsy’Produced by Engeman Theater – Northport

Reviewed by Jeb Ladouceur 

 ‘Gypsy’ is one of those ‘can’t-miss’ names that’s a virtual synonym for Show Business. We all know the account of ‘Rose’ the insistent stage mother who lives vicariously through her daughters Louise and June, and “…damn the vaudevillian torpedoes—it’s full speed ahead!”

But the chief problem with The Engeman’s current production of ‘Gypsy’ is that while it’s billed essentially as Louise’s ‘rags-to-riches’ story, it’s too much of a non-stop saga about Mama Rose’s maniacal pursuit of fame, and those anticipated torpedoes never come close enough for us to fear that the determined Rose won’t manage to dodge them. Accordingly, we’re left with a mere footnote to the plot when Louise (now Gypsy Rose Lee) crams a couple of successively more glitzy ‘strip’ routines into a few minutes at the end of what has become a somewhat confusing show.

The play follows Mama and her distinctly different daughters from their pre-teen singing and dancing years (as 9-year-old ‘Baby June’ironically turns-in the family’s most winning performances) right up to early adulthood … when Baby June’s finally had enough of pretending to be a kiddie hoofer. She recognizes vaudeville’s impending demise … as well as the impossibility of ever satisfying her overly-aggressive mother … and quits the stale act to pursue the more mature life of a wife and legitimate actress.

Rose, of course, is devastated, and viciously decides to turn her more withdrawn daughter Louise into the star she’d been grooming June to become … whether Louise likes it or not.

Admittedly, everybody’s angst becomes a key component in nervy Rose’s self-delusional tale of woe, and when second fiddle, Louise, replaces long-gone June at her mother’s insistence, Louise winds up booked into a naughty burlesque strip joint. This proves to be the best thing that could have happened to the Engeman audience, because there, a chubby dancer named ‘Mazeppa’ treats us to one of the funniest routines we’ll ever see on stage.

‘Mazeppa’ is played by the magnificently gifted Long Island veteran, Jennifer Collester Tully, and she stops the show in its tracks with her risqué, off-key, trumpet-blaring rendition of ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick.’ Tully’s got a gimmick, alright, and in all the years I’ve been watching her hilarious interpretations, she’s never failed to outshine everybody else onstage. It’s known as talent, folks, and Jen Tully has it in spades.

But not even Tully and her suggestive sidekick, ‘Electra’ (expertly played by Amber Carson) can save this spotty production from the repetitiousness sadly built into so many Stephen Sondheim musicals. Heretical though it may seem, even the almighty ‘West Side Story’suffers from Sondheim monotony in my view. In fairness, be advised that this is not a universal, or even a widely held opinion on Broadway. Indeed, Stephen Sondheim is regarded by many professional composers as America’s greatest lyricist! And inexplicably he has won more Tony awards than any other musical wordsmith. So, go figure.

The indisputable fact is that ‘Gypsy’ … even when it opened in 1959 at The Broadway Theatre starring the great Ethel Merman … failed to win a single Tony, despite having been nominated in eight categories (none of which nominations, incidentally, involved Sondheim). Not until Angela Lansbury played ‘Rose’ in the 1974 Broadway revival did the American Theatre Wing finally smile on ‘Gypsy’ by giving the British-born star a Best Actress Tony in the revival.

It must be noted here, therefore, that the problems associated with this show are almost exclusively attributable to lyricist Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents (Laurents, having died in 2011, incidentally is buried with his partner under a memorial bench in out-east Quogue). In summary, it is this critic’s view that the current Engeman cast and crew are in no way to blame for ‘Gypsy’s’ shortcomings … any more than it is Ethel Merman’s or Jack Klugman’s fault the widely-acclaimed show couldn’t score a Tony in its debut.

At the Engeman, the insistent Michele Ragusa does as well as can be expected in the demanding role of an obsessed Mama Rose. In Act I, 11-year-old Kyla Carter (young Baby June) proves as accomplished as any child star we’ve seen currently performing on Long Island. And the hi-jinx loaded combination of profane Jen Tully and Amber Carson in Act II is, itself, worth the hefty price of admission. In future shows it surely won’t be hard for Wojcik/Seay Casting to come up with a pair of comedic specialists who can probably save any musical that might need resuscitation. Make a note of their names if you haven’t already—Tully & Carson—these plump, appealing pros are just plain irresistible!

Igor Goldin directs this show that runs thru October 29th. Next up at Northport’s plush Engeman Theater is the ever-popular ‘Annie,’ starting November 9th


Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His recent hit, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s newly completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, was introduced at the Smithtown Library on May 21st. The book involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com 


Reader Comments (4)

Jeb Ladouceur's writing is a joy to read. It is crisp, thorough and insightful. He has really distinguished himself in the art of theater review.
Sat, October 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterElise Pearlman
Cindi Sansone-Braff.

Agree wholeheartedly with your review. This is a play that should not be staged any longer. It was mediocre theater to begin with and time has only made it seem a lot staler.
Sun, October 8, 2017 | Registered Commenter.
Genie Meyers - Jamesport.

I saw the film. Agree with you - - the story tends to get almost boring at times.
Sun, October 8, 2017 | Registered Commenter.
Dr. Pearlman's is a true compliment ... and I wholly concur!

- Jeffrey Sanzel - Port Jefferson
Sun, October 8, 2017 | Registered Commenter.

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