Monday, July 12, 2010

Vicki Lewis demands "Rose's Turn."

Why did North Shore Music Theatre choose Gypsy as its comeback number? The classic show is notoriously hard to cast - it includes one of the most challenging psychological roles in musical theatre history (Mama Rose) as well as a bevy of juveniles who can act, sing, and dance their hearts out. But it's a classic for a reason - it boasts one of the best scores evah (music by the great Jule Styne, lyrics by the even-greater Stephen Sondheim). Even more to the point, its theme - show-biz survival, no matter what - has tremendous resonance for the NSMT itself. When Mama Rose defiantly shouted "Curtain up! Light the lights!" in the showstopping "Everything's Coming Up Roses," you could feel everyone in the building, from the audience to the crew, singing silently along with her.

Because, in case you didn't know, the North Shore has survived even more than Mama Rose has. Fire, then bankruptcy - and still the theatre keeps coming back, this time as a for-profit venture by theatre impresario Bill Hanney. You've gotta have show biz in your blood to take that kind of risk, so it was a relief to find that Gypsy, despite a wobble here and there, boded well for his big gamble; as a first step, this brilliant musical counts as something of a great leap forward for the NSMT. Director Richard Sabellico has brought some clever flourishes to his essentially-traditional production, and has smartly re-staged this proscenium show for the NSMT's in-the-round arena (if anything, he has almost over-compensated with the blocking). As stage-mom-from-hell Mama Rose, TV star Vicki Lewis at first doesn't seem to have the take-no-prisoners brassiness we associate with the likes of Ethel Merman, Roz Russell and Patti LuPone - but we realize slowly that this is Mama Rose not as drill sergeant but as underdog, and her sheer determination grows on you. And to be honest, Lewis brings an edge of needy desperation to her famous meltdown, "Rose's Turn," that I thought (although I know this is heresy) was more powerful than LuPone's take in the widely-raved-over Broadway revival.

And there's more good news. As downtrodden daughter Louise, Catherine Walker displays both the sweetest set of pipes in the show, and a steadily-growing sense of her own power as she sheds skin after psychological skin to finally reveal herself as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. And Amanda Lea Lavergne made a surprisingly strong and sympathetic sister June, who grew up herself to be actress June Havoc (Lavergne was so intriguing, in fact, that we missed her once she'd left the story). There were other great turns from good sports Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, Jan Neuberger and Laurie Gamache as the grizzled strippers of "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" (which always brings down the house), and an acidly pert performance from Diane Terrusa as a fed-up producer's assistant.

Where are the gaps? I knew you were going to ask. Well, the staff is stripped down now, and you could feel it in the occasional squeak in the sound system, and the fact that the (pleasingly large) orchestra was still pulling together on opening weekend. The production didn't yet have the smooth, gears-gliding-against-gears feel that the North Shore had in its heyday. But then this is a first production. What I missed most was the great dancing that the North Shore used to showcase; they regularly attracted the best Broadway hoofers in the region (this may be just a question of re-connecting with some particular circuit). The opportunities for great dance in Gypsy are somewhat limited, it's true, but the one big opportunity in the show ("All I Need is the Girl") was good, but not great.

Still, what's the bottom line? The North Shore is back, with a big show that was a big gamble, but pays off, with strong supporting roles and a star turn that builds into something really commanding. The theatre has been smartened up, too, with fresh finishes here and there, and some sharp new landscaping and gazebos for drinks before the show. So curtain up - light the lights; there's nothing to hit but the heights. Everything is coming up roses for the North Shore.