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Theater Review: Overture’s Original Orchestrations Lead Way For Luscious Gypsy

Before the curtain even rises on Lyric Stage’s production of Gypsy, there are goose bumps.

The overture is one of my favorite parts of a musical. This melodic sampler platter sets the mood, drums up excitement for what’s to come, and can almost always be counted on to be magnificent, regardless of the caliber of what might follow. Here, the original orchestrations—not heard since Gypsy’s debut in 1959—and a few bits that were cut before the Broadway opening are bestowed upon the audience like an exclusive present. Under the energetic baton of Jay Dias and with the talent of 39 musicians, Jule Styne’s classic tunes pour forth with adrenaline-pounding, nostalgia-inducing fervor. Before the curtain even rises on Lyric Stage’s production of Gypsy, there are goose bumps.

That the tale that follows—of the ultimate stage mother scraping by in the dying days of vaudeville and her tomboy daughter’s subsequent rise to burlesque fame—not only lives up to, but at times surpasses, the overture’s excellence is a bonus.

European actress Sue Mathys is Rose, a role originally created in 1959 for Ethel Merman and later played by such Broadway heavy-hitters as Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, and Tyne Daly. Mathys is a force, bulldozing her way through Rose’s iconic songs (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and relentlessly pushing her scenes with a focused, almost manic, determination. Her single-mindedness regarding her daughters’ careers (and her own livelihood) is scary in its intensity yet admirable for its consistency. She makes the mothers on “Toddlers & Tiaras” look like wimps.

Luckily, the supporting cast has the brass to measure up. Sonny Franks, as Herbie, avoids the dishrag characterization that so many actors fall back on and instead lets Herbie’s solid, calming presence ground the scenes he’s in. Likewise, Ashton Smalling allows angst and frustration to break through Dainty June’s beribboned veneer while keeping the cutesy overload in check (that’s left to younger doppelgänger Kristin Wright as Baby June).

Mary McElree is a nuanced delight as Louise, the overlooked daughter who blossoms into striptease queen Gypsy Rose Lee (it’s from her memoirs that Arthur Laurents based his script). Gawky and gangly as a pre-teen on the cusp of womanhood at the start, then sultry and poised as one of the most admired women in show business by the end, she brings an effortless air to the role. McElree makes sure we feel Louise’s embarrassment at her mother’s antics and her desperation to hang on to the successful adult life she’s finally built for herself. Louise’s longing for femininity and romance while watching Tulsa (the swoon-worthy Michael Whitney) rehearse a soft-show showstopper is a bittersweet mix of heartbreaking and joyful. McElree is neither a showgirl masquerading as an ugly duckling nor a plain Jane striving to be glamorous—she’s simply perfect.

Working with a recreation of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and costumes based on those designed for the 2008 Broadway revival, the overall feel of the show is sublimely polished. Director Len Pfluger manages to keep a zippy pace, and every chorus member, from the endearing little newsboys to the squealing Toreadorables to Caroline the Cow, offers entertaining contributions. Though only on for a lamentably short time, Caitlin Carter (Tessie Tura), Sara Shelby-Martin (Mazeppa), and Shannon McGrann (Electra) pounce on the bawdy “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” with first-rate sleaze and comic timing.

Oh, and I did mention there’s a real-live lamb? And a dog. The old adage about never working with children and animals doesn’t apply here; if anything, they’re the cherry on top of a luscious production.

Photo by Michael C. Foster