Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Gypsy" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

2016 is the fourth year of Broadway Reimagined, the partnership that combines the resources of Hennepin Theatre Trust with the innovation of Theater Latte Da to create a new interpretation of a familiar Broadway musical. This year's selection is a beloved classic of the American musical theater canon, the 1959 Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents creation Gypsy, based on the memoir of burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee. Theater Latte Da did this musical almost ten years ago in their old home The Loring Playhouse (only my second Latte Da show, I've seen nearly everything they've done since). Even though two actors reprise their roles, as do the director, music director, and choreographer, this is a different show in a bigger venue. And I'm convinced there is no better venue for this show in the Twin Cities than the beautifully restored Vaudeville theater that is the Pantages, where the historical characters in the play very likely performed nearly 100 years ago. There's a sense of history in this show which, along with Theater Latte Da's usual attention to detail in every aspect of the production, creates a beautiful, realistic, moving look into the world of show business and the quintessential stage mother/daughter relationship. As the song says, let Theater Latte Da entertain you, you will have a real good time, yes sir!

We first meet* Rose and her daughters Louise and June in an audition, as she famously calls out directions including "sing out, Louise!" Baby June is the star, a pretty and precocious little girl in blond ringlets, and Louise is the older and less talented daughter forced into the shadows. Rose promises her girls she will make them stars, and travels around the country getting them bigger and better gigs with the help of Herbie, their manager who's also an unofficial husband/father figure to the family. Louise and June soon outgrow the little girl act but their mother refuses to let them grow up. A teenage June runs away with one of the boys in the act to form their own act. Herbie and Louise encourage Rose to walk away and concentrate on their family, but Rose is not someone who gives up. She turns all of her focus to making Louise a star in a recycled version of the old act. But Vaudeville is dying, so the act ends up in a Burlesque theater. Rose promises that this will be the last gig and she will marry Herbie and walk away when it's over. But when given the chance to make Louise a star in the Burlesque world, she takes it, and shoves Louise into the spotlight. Surprisingly, Louise takes to this new role and shines, not needing her mother any more. In one of the most famous musical theater songs, Rose makes one final plea to the universe, asking when it will be "Rose's Turn" after all she's sacrificed.

Cat Brindisi as Louise and Michelle Barber as Rose
(photo by George Byron Griffiths)
In a genius bit of casting, Peter Rothstein has chosen perhaps the most talented mother/daughter team in the Twin Cities to play Rose and Louise - Michelle Barber and Cat Brindisi. Both are incredible individual talents, Michelle a staple at the Chanhassen as well as other theaters in town, and Cat an up-and-coming young talent. But put them together, and it's really quite something. This is not the first time they've played mother and daughter on stage (see also Spring Awakening), but it's probably safe to say it's the most significant. Like when married couples play married couples, the real-life relationship adds another layer of authenticity to the stage relationship, as you see them mirrored in each other. Cat blooms before our eyes from the awkward teenager to the confident woman and entertainer, and it's obvious where she gets her talent (and her legs!), although she's made it all her own. But even though the show is called Gypsy, Mama Rose is the star of this show (wouldn't she be pleased!), and Michelle is a force of nature as the stage mother to end all stage mothers, with a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching performance of "Rose's Turn."

"Together Wherever We Go!" (Tod Peterson, Cat Brindisi,
and Michelle Barber, photo by George Byron Griffits)
The rest of the cast ain't too shabby either. The two actors reprising their roles from Latte Da's last production of the show are Tod Peterson, so genuine and charming as Herbie, and Eriq Nelson, stealing scenes with his very specific albeit brief performances as... everyone! Shinah Brashears is a perfect choice for Baby June, and gets to play a bit with other roles as well. Tyler Michaels not only shines as the soft-shoeing Tulsa but also as several other characters, most notably a nonchalant stripper with a cigarette hanging off her lips. Because if you've got Tyler Michaels in a show, might as well have him play as many characters as possible! Emily Jansen and Kate Beahen also make great strippers with a gimmick, just a few of the too many great performances in the ensemble to mention, which also include a talented crop of kids that bode well for the future.

The most significant reimagining comes through in the set design (by Michael Hoover), or rather the set design sets the tone for the reimagining. The entire stage is open to the backstage, piled high with things that you might find stacked in an old theater, and you can see the inner workings of the backdrops and set pieces as they move in and out and up. Peter Rothstein said in an interview, "The Pantages Theatre has 35 batons in its fly loft, all intended for painted scenery. We use every one of them in this production to carry painted drops that are based on historical research and period advertisements." This adds to the authenticity of this story in this space. It feels delightfully and appropriately retro and old-fashioned, as if you're seeing actual Vaudeville acts the way they originally might have been seen. The lighting (by Mary Shabatura) feels appropriate to the period too, with the big stage bulbs surrounding an arch and in the footlights, flashing, brightening, and dimming as called for by the story. Completing the look is the authentic-looking period wardrobe, as well as the flashy Vaudevillian costumes and Loise's layered-for-stripping looks (costume design by Alice Fredrickson).

This dreamy score is full of such favorites as the double entendre that is  "Let Me Entertain You," "You'll Never Get Away From Me" (which I sing to my cats if they try to sneak out the door), "Together Wherever We Go," and of course, "Everything's Coming Up Roses." They all sound great as performed by Denise Prosek's six-piece pit orchestra in an actual pit. And since many of the scenes in the play take place on an actual stage, the pit orchestra and conductor are often mentioned and talked to. And the audience has a role to play too, as Mama Rose encourages us to cheer for Baby June, and Gypse Rose Lee flirts with us, making us feel part of the experience.

The talent in this town is an embarrassment of riches, and kudos to Broadway Reimagined for shining a light on it with this fantastic production of a beloved classic. It was a great weekend for musical theater with the premieres of two must-sees for musical theater fans - the beautifully faithful production of A Chorus Line at the Ordway, and this new and yet retro reimagined Gypsy (playing now through March 13).

*Plot summary borrowed from my post about Bloomington Civic Theatre's production in 2014.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.