Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Gyrating Gypsy

A musical classic hits the historic Pantages just in time for the theater's 100th anniversary

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Peter Rothstein is at it again.

He's back at the Pantages for his annual local production of a classic musical with Gypsy, the true story of the life of famous burlesque dancer and movie star Gypsy Rose Lee before she was renowned.

Gypsy is a favorite musical of mine, mostly because it has so much resonance with our era of all-consuming celebrity obsession. Kris Jenner has nothing on Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee's ferocious, territorial stage mother to beat all stage mothers. Although she means well by trying to give her daughters interesting lives, Rose really becomes the first person (through Gypsy, as her extension) who truly understands how to exploit the public interest and celebrity itself. In the end, this skill really does more harm than good, but it does allow Gypsy to climb from poverty and truly realize the American dream in the only way that seems to really work for women historically: by taking off their clothes.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
As Gypsy, Cat Brindisi does a great job of transcending the pitiful years of painful introversion into a sparkling stripping goddess. She is inherently awkward in the early stages of the show, pulling off Gypsy's withdrawn persona extremely well for such a natural extrovert. She also pairs well with Michelle Barber, the true star of the show as Gypsy's mother Rose. This should perhaps be no surprise, considering that Barber is in fact Brindisi's real mother, but their stage relationship truly depicts the fraught tension that can often exist between strong willed relatives of the same gender. As displayed in her excellent take on Hello Dolly last year, Barber is well suited to this role and sings the heck out of it. Her arias are often audience favorites, and she rose to the challenge of Rose with aplomb.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The ensemble cast is no slouch, and includes local wunderkind Tyler Michaels in several roles, as well as Emily Jansen as a radiant stripper Tessie Tura, vividly colored supporting roles played by Eriq Nelson, and an irritatingly (but appropriately) pubescent portrayal of Gypsy's sister June by Shinah Brashears. Tod Petersen is heartaching as Rose's not-quite-husband Herbie. There are many small supporting roles in Gypsy, and they are given just as much care as the stars; this approach keeps the audience engaged despite slow movement (especially in the first act) and garners lots of laughs besides.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Musically, the show is as solid as it could possibly be (we would expect no less from such a group of Chanhassen Dinner Theater transplants). One small quibble with the writing: I wish there were more opportunity for songs from characters other than Rose herself. One of the highlights of this production is a beautiful duet between Gypsy and her sister June, "If Momma Was Married." I instantly wished for more once it was over; maybe a slight edit could do the trick in the future?
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust. 
As always, Rothstein's set in the Pantages is gorgeous and appropriately meta. It includes an intermittent "stage on the stage," an eclectic and somehow steampunkishly vibed pile of backstage detritus, and a series of clever and light small prop pieces. Costumes are modest but fun to watch, particularly the stripper costumes in Act II, which include a Spartan, a full busted butterfly, and a light up bikini in drag. They're a hoot; be sure to keep an eye out for them.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Gypsy is a musical with a lot to say about fame and fortune, and that morality lies in more than simply deciding when to wear clothing. Its message of simplicity and the value in family is a keen one in our age of reality TV and frozen dinners, and I suspect audience members will find some food for thought hidden between Gypsy's figurative brassiere. Because it is locally produced, Gypsy runs a little longer than some other shows at Hennepin Theatre Trust. Check out more information and tickets by clicking on this link.