Thursday, June 16, 2011

West Coast Ensemble Brings GYPSY Back to Hollywood

Jan Sheldrick and Stephanie Wall in Gypsy
Photo: Carla Barnett

Performance update: Due to popular demand, the show has extended through July 31, 2011.

Stephen Sondheim, in his memoir “Finishing the Hat,” said that Gypsy is the show where he came of age lyrically. “It was the first chance I had to write lyrics for characters of considerable complexity… [and] Rose, was the dramatist’s dream, the self-deluded protagonist who comes to a tragic/triumphant end.”

When an audience knows more about the character than they do themselves, they wait in a kind of suspended anticipation of that inevitable point when the character will be forced to face the truth. In the case of Gypsy, Momma Rose’s moment of truth comes in a show-stopping eleven o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn.”

Jan Sheldrick is getting a chance to experience that moment of truth firsthand as she takes on the iconic role of Momma Rose in West Coast Ensemble’s production of Gypsy, now playing at the Theatre of Arts Arena Stage in Hollywood. Sheldrick hits the highs and lows of this desperately flawed character with everything she’s got and she’s terrific.

As her daughters, Stephanie Wall and Kaylie Swanson create sisters as different as two girls could possibly be – Wall as Louise, who goes on to become burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, and Swanson as June, who would later star on Broadway and in films as June Havoc.

You will fall in love with these girls, I’m warning you. Swanson is a perky, blonde ingénue who will fool you into thinking she’s all smiles until you see a flash of the rage that June is hiding underneath, and Wall will just plain break your heart. Her “Little Lamb,” sung quietly to her stuffed animals, is simple and sweetly innocent and watching her dance behind Tulsa (a charming Eric Alan Smith) during “All I Need is the Girl” proves that the eyes really are windows to the soul. You’ll see in hers the yearning of a young girl aching to be seen, and knowing that disappointment is only moments away makes it even more poignant for us watching her.

Their younger selves are Kaleigh Ryan as Baby June, a smaller, spunkier, baton-twirling ball of energy in blonde curls, and Caitlin Williams as Young Louise, who I wanted to scoop up and say don’t worry, it will all be okay. The connection between the older and younger versions of Louise is very moving and director Richard Israel uses it to create some incredibly powerful moments. I don’t want to spoil any of them so that’s all I will say, but they added so much to the subtext. He has a way of bringing out all the layers underneath, and in a show like this, if you strip away all the showbiz of the story, it really is all about these people and who they are to each other, who they want to be, and who they can never be.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the relationship between Rose and Herbie (Michael Matthys), two people who can’t quite seem to end up on the same page. Matthys has a likeable, everyman quality that works so beautifully for Herbie, especially when paired with the fast-talking, take-no-prisoners Sheldrick…and he’s got a great singing voice too! Those who know him from his many dramatic roles around town are in for a treat.

Larry Lederman and Tony Pandolfo (one very funny guy) are nicely featured in a variety of roles and you’ll get a kick out of Sara Stuckey as the gimmick-laden stripper, Tessie Tura. Stuckey has mastered the fine arts of tassel-twirling and talcum powder, and uses them both to good advantage in Act II.

Costumes by Zale Morris are spot-on and special mention goes to Anthony Gagliardi for the fantastic wigs. Put them up on Stephen Gifford’s great road-weary set, add Johanna Kent’s fine musical direction, and polish it off with John Todd’s inventive choreography, and you’ve got a Gypsy that is quite moving.  

West Coast Ensemble’s pared down version of Gypsy is a timely choice for 2011, especially with the recent passing of book writer Arthur Laurents and all the talk of a new Gypsy film in the works.

It's a story that never grows old; the desire to become a star. And whether you never get fame for yourself, like Rose, or you stumble into it because there is no other choice, like Louise, it always lies in wait for an opportunity. Richard Israel and company have taken their opportunity to make this ragtag Gypsy completely, and quite effectively, their own.

For tickets and more information go to

Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Stein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee
Directed by Richard Israel

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