From Riverside Theatre’s production of GYPSY.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Everything is most definitely comin’ up roses for fans of the great musical “Gypsy.” There are overlapping productions of them in Titusville and in Vero Beach.
And why not? When it comes to American musicals with staying power, “Gypsy” is a force of nature.
The original 1959 production starred Ethel Merman, one of the biggest names in American musical theater, as Mama Rose and although it was passed over for awards, it ran for nearly two years on Broadway. This giant role has attracted big names to star in four Broadway revivals – Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989), Bernadette Peters (2003) and Patti LuPone (2008). The much ballyhooed 2015 West End production is scheduled to transplant to Broadway later this year. That one will star Imelda Staunton, who was Dolores Umbridge in the 2007 movie “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
In addition, Rosalind Russell portrayed her in a 1962 film and Bette Midler took on the role for a television adaptation in 1993.
Now, there are two productions designed to enthrall area theater patrons. One at Brevard’s north county community theater, Titusville Playhouse, and another, 80 miles south, at Riverside Theatre, Vero Beach’s professional theater.
TPI’s production stars popular professional Orlando actor Laura Hodos as Mama Rose. Broadway performer Jacquelyn Piro Donovan will star in the Riverside production. Interestingly, both actors portrayed Fantine in “Les Miserables.”Based on the memoirs of the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee, the musical has book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Subtitled “A Musical Fable,” the story begins at the heyday of vaudeville. Mama Rose, the quintessential stage mother, hauls her two daughters, June and Louise, through the vaudeville circuit. Soon, though, June runs off to marry and with the passing of vaudeville, Mama Rose’s efforts become less profitable. Trying to make a living, Louise turns to burlesque.
The show has big musical numbers including “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You” and the hysterical “Ya Gotta Get a Gimmick” sung by a trio of strippers.
Steven Heron, artistic director for Titusville Playhouse, chose “Gypsy” because, frankly, he wanted a big hit that women especially love.
“It’s the ultimate stage mother show,” he said. “I think every woman has to step into her shoes. Laura Hodos heard it described as the ‘King Lear for women.’ It really is.”
The production’s director, Alexander Nathan, said his concept was to capture that time when vaudeville was giving over to burlesque.
“It’s the Depression,” he said. “This is not a pretty, glamorous era. It’s a gritty era.”
Heron is especially pleased that that this is TPI’s first production of “Gypsy.”
“That’s kind of cool since the Playhouse is originally a vaudeville house,” he said.
Riverside Theatre brought back popular director James Brennan for its production of the musical.
“Our concept is based on the fact that show business is at the heart of all this ambition,” Brennan said. “So we are in the world of theatre in the 20s and so you will see the sets changed around the actors, by the stagehands of the 20s. Our production takes place on a vaudeville stage, populated by vaudevillians, in an era when vaudeville was dying. This is its last hurrah.
“We also find ourselves in the burlesque world, because the economy was about to crash, and people had to survive as best they could.”
Brennan is especially intrigued at the mother’s story. Rose Hovick was mother not only to Gypsy Rose Lee but also to June Havoc, the 1940s film actress. (Yes, they were sisters.)
“The leading character is a force of nature,” he said. “Rose Hovick…is a character that embodies all that is human, good and bad. She is dissatisfied with her life, haunted by disappointment, afraid of being ordinary and scarred by an unhappy childhood.
“She is also ambitious, self-sufficient, strong in her convictions and determined to get what she wants. She has a yearning for life that I envy. Her emotions run deep. And she is obnoxious. There is at least something for everyone to identify with.”
Those characters traits certainly were embodied by LuPone near the end of her show’s run.
Heron was at the performance when LuPone famously stopped the show and screamed at an audience member who was trying to take a photograph of her as she began her big number, “Rose’s Turn.”
He described the remarkable moment like this:
The scene before “Rose’s Turn” is when Rose and Gypsy (Laura Benanti) are in the dressing room. In that production, the director (Arthur Laurents) has them fighting then circling each other in silence, “…like lionesses stalking their prey,” Heron said. There was a tense silence when someone’s cell phone went off. Then three seconds later, it rang again. Benanti broke the scene, put her hands up to the audience and said “What the hell” and left the stage.
That moment led up to the LuPone meltdown. She was about to sing “Rose’s Turn.” A curtain went up behind her, revealing the orchestra and apparently encouraging an audience member to take a photo.
She halted and yelled out “Stop it! Stop taking pictures of me. You aren’t allowed.”
“She went on this tirade, worked herself into a tizzy, left the stage for five seconds, then stormed back on and screamed some more, two or three times,” Heron said. “Finally, the usher was like ‘Patti, Patti, we’ve removed them from the audience.’
“She looked at the audience and said ‘I’ll continue now for all of you who respect the art.’ The stage manager came on and said ‘Okay, Patti, let’s start at the top of the number.’ “
While neither Titusville Playhouse nor Riverside Theatre directors expect the same kind of excitement in these more genteel climes, they do expect some big, bold energy to come out of “Gypsy.”
“This is such a quintessential stage business show,” Nathan said. “The (big) energy is something I’ve tried to capture in my production.”
“A theatrical saga, told in theatrical terms, by theatrical people, about theatrical people, welcoming you into their world of way-back-when,” Brennan said. “Who could resist that?”
SIDE O’ GRITS, TWO PLATES, PLEASE: “Gypsy” runs through March 18 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville. Tickets are $23 to $29. Call 321-268-1125 or visit TitusvillePlayhouse.com. “Gypsy” opens March 6 and runs through March 25 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets start at $35. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in Melbourne Beachsider.