Theater Latté Da’s production of the musical Gypsy hits almost all the right notes—with the exception of casting Jody Briskey in the lead role of Mama Rose. But first, the good things, because they are very good.
Gypsy is the story of domineering stage mother Mama Rose and her two daughters, June and Louise. Actually, as staged by Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein, Gypsy is only about Mama Rose and her sociopathic ambition to see her daughters’ names in lights. Rothstein makes wonderful use of the Loring Playhouse’s stage, which is short on width but long on depth: we see characters changing costumes, hanging around, and changing scenery. Sometimes cast members double as musicians. These devices add to the theatricality of the plot while simultaneously cutting back on expenses (Latté Da pulled off the same trick with last year’s La Boheme). Michael Matthew Ferrell’s choreography is witty and enjoyable, and the performers dance it with verve and aplomb.
Rich Hamson’s richly toned flapper-era clothing and garish vaudeville costumes are spot on, and Jennifer DeGolier’s lighting adds to the ferocity of Briskey’s descent into crushing narcissism that verges on madness. And therein lies the rub, for Mama Rose has to be shrewd and overbearing—she’s every stage manager’s worst nightmare—but there should also be occasional glimpses of the vulnerable woman underneath. The actor playing Rose must find something appealing about her, something human beneath her belting and bravado. This is where the production falters, and not even the chorus of cute acrobatic kids and tranny burlesque dancers can save it.
As played by Briskey, Mama Rose is a parsimonious, green-eyed monster and nothing more. She struggles with the explosive opening song “Some People.” Her last number in Act One—the legendary “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”— makes her look psychotic as opposed to tragic. Her final showstopper, “Rose’s Turn,” is supposed to make her daughter Louise (Simone Perrin) sympathetic to her, but Briskey doesn’t come through. Perrin, too, comes up short; her Louise lacks the grandiosity required of a character who begins the play as a dowdy simp and grows up to become the most successful burlesque stripper in the business. As such, the ending seems contrived in what is otherwise an authentic and layered script.
Ironically, the role of Mama Rose—a woman whose dreams of stardom were never realized in herself—has always required star power to work (Ethel Merman created the role and set the bar impossibly high). Frankly, Briskey doesn’t have the chops. She’s over the top, a caricature, and she aims so high for the nasty parts of Rose that she misses the reason we would want to watch a show about her in the first place.
Nevertheless, Gypsy remains a timeless musical, a crowning achievement of musical theatre that has held its place in the cannon for forty-seven years. It gave an early career Stephen Sondheim a chance to hone his lyric writing skills. His words, along with Jule Styne’s score and Arthur Laurents’ book, continue to shine. For any competent production of Gypsy is surely show biz at its finest, even when the lead can’t hold up her end of the bargain.
Gypsy runs Oct. 4 through Nov. 5 at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. Call 651-209-6689 for tickets.