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Friday, March 21, 2014

There Won’t Be Trumpets

On the Boards Dept.: A review of the production of “Gypsy” playing through April 13, 2014, at Albany's Capital Repertory Theatre.


ALBANY HAS THE GENEROUS quality of judging cultural events, especially locally grown ones, as “good enough.” Good enough for applause and acclaim, despite – as it would appear to non-Albany eyes – a prevailing mediocrity. It reflects the rural heritage of the city (and Schenectady, and Troy) and thus the insular nature of its residents. Fear of being considered different and a proud anti-intellectualism help define the prevailing social class, dubbed High Prole by sociologist Paul Fussell. It’s entirely in keeping with that perspective that local celebrities should be news broadcasters. If your talent is greater, you’ve probably moved away.

Mary Callanan and Kelsey Crouch
Photo by Joseph Schuyler
What makes the acceptance of Good Enough the more striking is that it thrives in a region only a couple of hours upriver from Manhattan, where cultural excellence can be found when it suits Manhattan to produce it. As a tourist destination feature, that city’s entertainment caters to the middle class, including its upper reaches. The higher-priced offerings you find there may be relatively tame, but there nevertheless lurks a standard of excellence encouraged by audience and critics.

While Good Enough won’t work on Broadway, it’s what Albany expects, satisfying the sense of victimhood that also characterizes the High Prole, ranging from “you can’t fight the system” to “you mustn’t go to such trouble.” If it sings and dances, it’s probably good, even if it doesn’t sing and dance very well.

Capital Repertory Theatre’s production of “Gypsy” sings and dances, but not very well. That it has won acclaim in the local press is unsurprising: it seems Good Enough. Unpleasant criticism would be impolite. And to what are we comparing it?

The show debuted in 1959 as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, based on the then-recently published memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee. Book writer Arthur Laurents centered the musical around the character of Rose, a determined stage mom who pushes young Louise to become a star. The songs, by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, have become showbiz standards. With four Broadway revivals and countless other productions, not to mention two movie versions and a rumored third, the popularity of “Gypsy” bears out the critical esteem that places it at the pinnacle of golden-age Broadway achievement.

Which should challenge any producing entity to do its best with the show – and should raise audience expectation to match. That Capital Rep’s production achieves only competence at best also reflects another unfortunate cultural characteristic, this one not limited to any geographical realm or social class. It’s the crime of not trusting the material.

The first sign of trouble was the staging of the overture. Too often, as here, it’s a distracting mish-mash of motion serving only to announce that the audience isn’t to be trusted to sit reasonably quietly through a few voice-free, activity-free minutes. By the time of the opening scene, which should begin with a burst of chaos, the impact had been diffused. Instead, we got the first of what would be a caravan of cheap laughs, with the character of Uncle Jocko (Joe Phillips) costumed in full clown array complete with audible nose. (“JOCKO wears a tartan cap and fake horn-rimmed glasses as a concession to his name,” reads the script.) There’s a huge difference between laughs intrinsic to the material and laughs trowled upon it as an afterthought, but cheap laughs, sad to say, sell tickets.

Where Jocko should be harried (“nervous, oily”), Phillips made him unpleasant, giving Rose a cartoon foil once she entered to take charge of her two auditioning children. And Rose is one of the plummiest of roles for the older singing actress. Although Mary Callanan has a Broadway “Annie” and plenty of tours to her credit, her Rose was of grey slate, inviting no access to her thoughts and suggesting no motivation to her actions other than dogged meanness. It was a take-no-chances performance, with technically accomplished singing that conveyed no understanding of the complexity of the songs – and no transformation during the climactic “Rose’s Turn.”

Most of the show is a salute to vaudeville, which has come to define a particular, prole-friendly era, but vaudeville’s evanescence also serves to mirror the storyline element of children outgrowing a parent’s limited vision. The setting needs to be honored even as the subtext is explored, but we were given only the surface.

“Gypsy” is a musical comedy in no traditional sense. It’s a skillfully layered play with songs to match; it’s a drama with a satisfying succession of laughs. It needs to be played for its drama, as one would approach Albee or Arthur Miller, yet its portrait of the world of vaudeville needs appropriate razzmatazz. Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill gave us the latter, but only at the former’s expense. The Vaudeville-style placards intended to convey, in a vintage way, the location of each new scene instead were put in the hands of cast members who pranced them across the proscenium, pulling faces, adding business. Why a ballerina en pointe?  Why local newscaster Benita Zahn assaulting the fourth wall with ridiculous posturings?

I can answer the second question. It’s a regional-theater truism that a cast of kids brings in uncritical ticket-buying families, and “Gypsy” is a show that needs kids. Throwing in a newscaster as well wins even more attention, which would be excusable if the newscaster showed appropriate stagecraft chops. Zahn, when not mugging, was no more than competent, denied the success of her big trio number, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” by an approach that turned it into a mocking parody of what’s already a parody of a striptease routine. These women – trumpet-wielding Hillary Parker and fan-dancing LoriAnn Freda were the others – are coming from a baseline of choreographed sensuality so routine that it no longer excites the Minsky’s audience. But the sensuality needs to be in there someplace, otherwise our title character has nothing credible against which to fashion her own, more elegant, act. They got laughs. They weren’t good ones.

An audience needs permission to laugh. A well-constructed script offers opportunities early on. The first piece of bait in “Gypsy” (aside from a sexually inappropriate wisecrack) is found in an exchange between Rose and Jocko, a sequence about Elks and Odd Fellows that needs crisp pacing, pointed delivery and appropriate pauses. It got none of those, and subsequent laugh lines earned only scattershot response. Not until Scene Nine and the song “If Momma Was Married” did the crowd laugh as one, and that’s because Sondheim’s lyrics are perennially funny and Styne’s music imposes the needed pacing.

But it was clogged by a strange interpretive choice that added the character of “Teen Louise” (Cara O’Brien), a third face for the character where the script calls only for two. Grown-up Louise was played by Kelsey Crouch, who was the best performer in the show. It would have benefitted the show had she shown up when she should have. Instead, we had a top-of-the-show conceit presenting the mature Louise as observer of her past (shades of “Follies,” I guess), which had no follow-through, and the poignant “Little Lamb” became a duet between her and her teen self that accomplished nothing that Crouch couldn’t have done with the song as a solo.

I had great hope for Herbie. Broadway veteran Bob Walton brought impressive and appropriately quiet stage command, with a singing voice that gave us interpretive force in place of pear-shaped tones, and thank goodness for that. But his breakup with Rose (towards the end of Act Two) was marred by a lack of emotional affect, which unfortunately was consistent with the lack of any truly felt emotional changes throughout the show, as if the whole thing had been placed on prescription lithium.

Freddy Ramirez choreographed the show and played the part of L.A., one of the showboys Rose has put in the act. However good the planning of the steps themselves may have been, the execution was only Good Enough, lacking the dynamicism we’ve come to expect from a professional production. Certainly it was remarkable enough that the many kids we saw at the beginning could dance at all, and Albany loved that. Thereafter, it was Matt Gibson – a swing in the most recent Broadway revival – who showed us what the dance could look like with his virtuoso turn as Tulsa, singing and dancing “All I Need is the Girl.”

The production also unnecessarily sabotaged itself at several turns. George Franklin, a local 8th-grader who appeared in Broadway’s “A Christmas Story,” was appropriately utilized in the show’s early scenes, but was unaccountably (and inappropriately) brought back to play the trash-talking Pastey in Act Two. Although the character is described as “a young snot,” this was a pandering-for-laughs casting choice. Likewise the directorial decision to allow Morgan Przekurat, who played a handful of roles, to mug and posture her way through her every scene. And the abovementioned scene-change placard business killed any possible continuity of mood.

Pianist Adam Jones deftly led a skilled quartet through the busy score, and sound designer Brad Berridge kept the amplification well in hand. Fitting this very large show into an intimate space was a challenge ably met by set designer Roman Tatarowicz.

But we needed – we deserve – a better production than this. Trying to focus a finger of blame is a fool’s mission where theater is concerned. I saw it the night after its opening, which can account for a drop-off in energy, but that still was only one of the show’s many problems. As “the only resident professional theatre company in New York’s Capital District” – thus boasts the company’s website – it’s Capital Rep’s responsibility to show the area that where theater is concerned, Good Enough is never enough. Excellence, however elusive, must be the only goal. Otherwise we in the Albany area are doomed, when we seek fine theatrical entertainment, to settle for bad burlesque.

Gypsy: A Musical Fable
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
(Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee)
Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
Choreographed by Freddy Ramirez
Musical Direction by Adam Jones
Capital Repertory Theatre, March 19

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