Stage Door Review 2023


Saturday, August 26, 2023


music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Jay Turvey

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 27-October 7, 2023

Rose: “But some people ain’t me!”

The Shaw Festival last staged the musical Gypsy in 2005. Then Nora McLellan played the central role of Mama Rose and I concluded, “It’s hard to imagine anyone surpassing her performance”. I said nothing about equaling her performance or presenting a fascinating alternate perspective. In 2005 I noted that Kate Hennig was slated to play Rose at select performances and commented, “I have no doubt her interpretation of Rose will be fascinating”. Now Hennig is the principal Mama Rose and indeed her interpretation is fascinating. In 2005 Gypsy as directed by Jackie Maxwell was the best musical that the Shaw had theretofore presented. In 2023 Gypsy as directed by Jay Turvey is the best musical that the Shaw has presented since the 2005 Gypsy. When this great musical is blessed with a great leading lady, as it is this year with the sensational Kate Hennig, the work seems to bring out the best in everyone.

Turvey has done nothing to change the plot. As I summarized it, “Besides a vibrant score by Jule Styne and razor-sharp lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest strengths of this 1959 musical is the strong book by Arthur Laurents. In adapting the memoirs of famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970) for the stage, he realized that the most interesting character was not Gypsy but her mother Rose. In focussing on Rose as the archetypal stage mother, Laurents created one of the most complex female characters in the American musical. As she tries to make her favourite daughter Baby June a star, she faces set-back after set-back with a combination of scheming and boundless optimism. When June runs off to be married with the dancer Tulsa, Mama Rose sets her sights on Louise, the daughter she had always thought untalented”.

In 2005 I said that “Nora McLellan has the full measure of this role, both as an actor and as a singer”. This is equally true of Kate Hennig. McLellan’s Rose was hard and driven, obviously seeking personal stardom by proxy. Hennig’s Rose is different. Cory Sincennes’s costumes make her look frowsy as if she has spent so much time running around trying to get performance engagements for Baby June that she has completely neglected herself. Turvey as director and Hennig as performer seize on this inherent contradiction in Rose of the combination of selflessness and selfishness in Rose’s pursuit of her daughter’s stardom. McLellan brought out a certain meanness and brashness in Rose, which certainly are there in her songs (e.g., “Some People”), but Hennig plays Rose as a woman who has got caught up in a fantasy and is not aware that what she thinks is good for her daughters in no way takes their own desires into consideration.

When Rose wonders why it seems she keeps pushing away the people she cares about, Hennig’s Rose really is baffled because she is so lacking in self-awareness. It’s finally in her well-judged account of “Rose’s Turn”, when Rose finally wakes up to what she has been doing, that Hennig wins sympathy for Rose as a flawed human being. It’s an absolutely terrific, full-hearted performance.

Turvey plays up Rose’s lack of self-awareness in a way I do not recall in Maxwell’s production. Every time Baby June’s “Let Me Entertain You” routine fails to impress, Rose says that she has come up with a totally new, more exciting routine. When we see this “totally new” routine, Turvey and choreographer Genny Sermonia emphasize that it is exactly the same as the old routine except in different costumes.

Turvey and Sermonia also highlight the essential point that the basic routine Mama Rose keeps reusing is not that good in the first place. Turvey has the child playing Baby June use an unpleasantly squeaky voice to sing her song and later has Madelyn Kriese, who plays the older June, also use the same squeaky voice as if imitating herself as a child. As Baby June moves from prepubescence to adolescence, the routine becomes more creepy than enjoyable. Baby June’s little screeches every time she did a cartwheel (her short skirt falling over her stomach) sound distastefully provocative when June is no longer a child.

Turvey makes us see that the faux-innocence of the older June’s routine already prefigures Louise’s transition from singer-dancer to stripper since Rose, quite unconsciously, had already been promoting the latent sex-appeal in Baby June’s act. In this way, Turvey shows us that June’s act and Louise’s as Gypsy Rose Lee have more in common than the same signature song, “Let Me Entertain You”. In this way Turvey makes Rose’s quest for fame by proxy appear even more perverse.

Though Gypsy is nearly a one-woman show, with Rose on stage most of the time and granted nearly all the show’s most famous tunes, the show only succeeds if the performer playing Rose is supported by an excellent cast. That certainly is the case here. Madelyn Kriese is the unhappy adolescent June and Julie Lumsden is her neglected sister Louise. Under Turvey’s direction June does not come off as spoiled so much as coerced into a role and life she doesn’t like and has no talent for. Kriese’s later performances as June are cringingly amusing in that Kriese shows that June has begun to play her role by rote rather with any real enthusiasm.

Julie Lumsden well plays Louise’s shock and anger when Rose turns to her to take June’s place. We see that Louise is aghast that her mother is so mercenary, but Lumsden also shows how Louise gradually realizes that replacing June may also be a key to escaping her mother’s influence. By the end Lumsden’s Gypsy Rose Lee, affected though she is, dominates the stage and makes Hennig’s Rose look like an out-of-town hick by comparison.

Jason Cadieux is excellent as Herbie, an ordinary guy in love with Rose but frustrated by her pointless pursuit of fame. I don’t recall hearing him sing before, but it turns out that he has a fine, smooth baritone that helps make “Small World”, his duet with Rose, such a touching song.

Drew Plummer, who took over and triumphed in the role of Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees last year, plays a very believable Tulsa, another ordinary guy who realizes that there is no future in following Rose around. He gives an elegant rendition of “All I Need Is The Girl” and of Sermonia’s accompanying choreography which does look, as Tulsa claims, like a dancer just trying out a few moves.

Among the performers that Louise meets at a burlesque house in Wichita, gravel-voiced, horn-playing Jenni Burke handily steals the show with “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” leaving Élodie Gillett’s sniping Tessi Tura and Krystle Chance’s Electra to gimmer in her shade. The Shaw Festival sadly resorts again to grey-spayed hair by having Mike Nadajewski play roles like Pop and Kringelein when not that long ago the Festival would have ranks of senior actors on hand to play such parts.

Though designer Cory Sincennes has designed a number of detailed computerized trucks that glide in for various scenes, he and Turvey do underline theatre as the show’s central concern. Sincennes fits an old-fashioned proscenium within the modern Festival Stage proscenium and places a proscenium arch on a turntable, which in a 180º revolve can easily show us what’s happening backstage or in front of the curtain.

Sincennes’s costumes reflect the various styles of the rich and poor in the US during the 1920s. His get-ups for the burlesque queens are comically tacky and his outfits for the Baby June numbers have an authentically homemade look.

Besides presenting one of the most complex characters in American musical theatre, Gypsy features a score that amazingly, by today’s standards, feature an endless sequence of hit songs. To create that effect today, producers raid the back catalogues of pop singers or groups or gather hit songs from a certain period. Gypsy reminds us that there was a time when the flow was the other way round, from musicals to the radio. Anyone who wants to see one of the greatest musicals from Broadway’s Golden Age and, with Kate Hennig, one of the greatest performances in a musical this year, should book tickets to Gypsy at the Shaw Festival as soon as possible.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Julie Lumsden as Louise and Kate Hennig as Mama Rose; Julie Lumsden as Louise and Madelyn Kriese as June; Kate Hennig as Mama Rose and Jason Cadieux as Herbie; Julie Lumsden as Gypsy Rose Lee. © 2023 David Cooper.

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