The show that New York Times revered and feared theatre critic Ben Brantley has referred to as “what may be the greatest of all American musicals” and Times essayist/columnist Frank Hart Rich Jr. once called “Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear, Gypsy: A Musical Fable in the end is nothing without a Rose who can join a long line of divas of a certain age to try and live up to the original Rose, the incomparable Ethel Merman. After all, there are plenty of big shoes, bigger mouths, and biggest personalities that have preceded any Rose who steps on stage to sing those first few notes of “Some People.”
With the likes of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Imelda Staunton all having tried to outdo each other in the past, what a daunting task for any casting director to undertake to find a show’s Rose. Fortunately for Bay Area Musicals, the search by Artistic Director Matthew McCoy did not have to go far to land Ariela Morgenstern – a San Francisco native with New York credentials – to take her place in that line-up of past Roses and to bring her full acting gusto, gigantic stage presence, and big-voiced singing bravado into the fabled role.
Any doubts about this Rose are quickly erased when she stomps down the theatre’s aisle demanding with a bullying scream, “Sing out, Louise” or when in her opening song she first belts with true clarity and charisma, “I have a dream, a wonderful dream, Papa.” Yes, Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music), and Stepthen Sondheim (lyrics) would surely all approve with satisfied smiles that BAM’s Gypsy is headlined by a Rose who will once again knock the socks off her audience with her beautiful bellows of blast as have so many of her predecessors.
As the musical progresses through its vaudeville and burlesque stages, Ariela Morgenstern only gets better and ever-more convincing in her portrayal of this most infamous of pushy – some would say monstrous – backstage mothers. Her Rose is a fierce steamroller ready to plow over anyone who gets in her way of making her two girls, June and Louise, big-time stars. Always in constant motion often in places where directors and her daughters do not want her, she hustles and bustles simultaneously in a half-dozen different directions to scheme, to push aside, and to boss in order to get their names on a marquee’s lights — even in the end if only on those of a seedy strip joint. With a voice that can thunder forth like Gabriel’s trumpet before reverberating as if echoing into the Grand Canyon, Ariela Morgenstern commands in song in ways no one can ignore Rose’s wishes.
But for all her bulldozing, stage-mother faults, her Rose can at times melt our hearts. A prime example is when she sings in duet with her patiently loyal paramour and the devoted booking agent of her kids’ act, Herbie, as the two play off each other in fine and flirty fashion in “Small World.” Later, when they dance as two lovers in “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” they both admit in harmony, “I couldn’t get away from you, even I wanted to;” and Rose almost convinces us (and Herbie) that she has a soft enough spot in her heart to let love take over and overrule her “Mommie Dearest” tendencies. As the ever-hopeful, mild-mannered Herbie, DC Scarpelli brings a debonair, delightful set of vocals along with a charming, captivating demeanor with twinkles in his eyes for Rose’s daughters and resignation in his shoulders for Rose’s delayed ‘yes’ to his ongoing proposals for marriage.
When in the end her prized and adored blonde starlet-in-the-making, Baby June, has abandoned her to star in movies and her terribly shy and second-fiddle Louise has somehow become known for her bare-skin beauty as the rich and famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, Ariela Morgenstern with magnificently arresting voice and big-stepping swagger of a Broadway-worthy star does what all those Roses have done before her: She takes the spotlight for herself with her own name finally emblazoned in lights all around her. At that moment, she declares in a vocal volume that rings loud and true to every corner, “Everything is coming up roses, this time for me … For me! … For me!” And at that moment, we and her daughter Gypsy easily forgive her for all those years of marching like Sherman over the burning fields of others’ dreams in order only to fulfill her own. As Gypsy says in the end, “It’s OK, momma! OK, Rose!”
Rose’s young daughters, June and Louise, bring their songs full of squeaks, squeals and silly stage antics to the spotlight. Emma Berman is delightful as the high-voiced, somersaulting Baby June in a wig of Shirley Temple curls and layers of petticoats who ends every song with an impressive, full-legged split. She duets with the equally wonderful, stumbling-over-her-own-feet, barely-opening-her-mouth Baby Louise (Chloe Fong) in “May We Entertain You.” The two are joined by three, soprano-happy ‘boys’ (young girls Amber Lee Wunderlich, Dakota Colussi, and Kayla Yee), all capable of also tapping their toes in a cute “Baby Jane and Her Newsboys.”
Through clever staging, the sisters and Newsboys eventually transform before our eyes into gangly teenagers who Rose insists on dressing, treating, and selling in auditions as no more than nine-year-olds. Tia Konsur is Dainty Jane who must continue to sing like she is going on ten when she is actually seventeen, must screech in the highest register possible the required “Hello, Everybody … My name is June … What’s yours?” and must end every night with a clumsily twirled baton with patriotic red, white, and blue all around her.
Louise is the unselfish sister who endures Rose’s ignoring her (while always doting on June) and making her don a humiliating cow costume with bulging eyes. At the same, Louise is quick to be the first one to defend and protect Rose whenever anyone, including June, speaks against her. Jade Shojaee serves up a pleasingly sweet voice full of innocence and loneliness in “Little Lamb” while cooing as a birthday teen over her only childhood friends, her stuffed animals. She joins June in a fun, sister-bonding “If Momma Was Married” and wins our hearts as she looks longingly in silent, teenage puppy-love gazes at one of the boys of their troupe, Tulsa. As she watches him practice a dance routine and begins to mirror his moves on the sideline, Jean-Paul Jones as Tulsa wows the audience with his alluring voice and a display of dance moves that begins as a few teasing tap-and-soft-shoe moves and then erupts into a full-stage display with convincing hints of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as he sings “All I Need Is the Girl.”
Once she becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, Louise is Momma’s dream in ways Rose at first sees as a nightmare and then comes to admire. Jade Shojaee’s Gypsy has her big diva moments in various stages of elegant dress and undress as she finally leaves timid, no-talent Louise behind to bring a full, mature, and invigorating voice to “Let Me Entertain You.”
In any production of Gypsy, there is one number that always brings some of the biggest howls from the audience and a chance for the costume designer to go wild with over-the-top comic surprises. When a trumpet-tooting stripper named Mazeppa (Olivia Cabera) begins to place her instrument in the strangest of positions as she instructs novice-stripper Louise how “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” the audience just gets warmed up before her sisters-in-the-trade join her – both a winged, wobbly ballerina named Tessie Tura (Elaine Jennings) and an Electra (Glenna Murillo) whose skimpy costume lights us in revealing places. While the members of the thrusting trio in this production sing with impressive lungs, I found the overall effect of their act to be less imaginative in costume, special effect, and comic technique that those I have seen in the past and thus, at least for me, a bit of a let-down.
The bare, back-stage, brick-wall setting designed by Matthew McCoy is transformed to a dozen or so road-trip locations mostly through a series of spot-lit billboards on either side of the stage, with some minimal set pieces hinting at dressing rooms and various apartment, restaurant, hotel settings. His lighting design is more successful in establishing the moods of burlesque backrooms, tawdry Vaudeville settings, and the glitzy Minsky’s of New York. Little girls in stage ribbons and frills, dancing newsboys and farm boys, a silly stage cow, washed-up strippers, and of course the much-renowned Gypsy herself are all costumed with fun and flair and sometimes elegance by Brooke Jennings. The silly steps and splits of kids on stage, the comic dance antics of trios and duos, and the wonderfully sophisticated solo of Tulsa are all choreographed by the many-faceted Matthew Coy, who also directs the cast of twenty-one. Finally, well-deserved kudos goes to Music Director Jon Gallo and his nine fellow musicians who serve up Jule Styne’s score with big-orchestra sound from their on-stage presence, especially impressive as they set the mood of the entire evening during the extended “Overture.”
For many reasons but all topped by Ariela Morgenstern as Rose herself, Bay Area Musical’s Gypsy: A Musical Fable is a sure-bet to send toes-tapping, voices humming, and big smiles repeatedly grinning as the company does full justice and more to this musical giant among the Great American Musicals of all time.
Rating: 4 E
Gypsy: A Musical Fable continues through December 8, 2019 as a production by Bay Area Musicals at the Alcazar Theatre at 650 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.bamsf.org/assassins/ for performances Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m.
Photo Credits: Ben Krantz Studio