Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Vincent J. Cardinal

Featuring Leslie Uggams
Connecticut Repertory Theatre, University of Connecticut Storrs Campus
July 10, 2014 – July 20, 2014

production site

[This is the fifth of five off campus reviews generated while I was a 2014 O’Neill  National Critics Institute Fellow.]

Leslie Uggams as Rose.
Leslie Uggams as Rose.

From the sloppy first notes of the Jule Styne Gypsy overture – bah bah buh bah! – we are put on notice. The production, currently staged by Connecticut Repertory Theatre in a building deep within the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut, annoys shocks and disturbs throughout the two acts of this now classic American musical. The story of this production is not non-traditional casting, as the press materials assert. The story is clarity and pacing and energy and commitment.

Does the sometimes whimsical non-traditional casting make any difference in our reactions to this classic American musical story? An initial answer is no. Other questions are in fact more important and profound concerning structure and direction and other results of casting choices. Are some of the musical lines missing in the often hollow sounding orchestrations? (It sounds as if this is true) Will the trumpets mess up “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” in the second act and other pivotal musical moments in the same way they slurred around the overture melodies? (Yes.) Will the lax direction (missing comedic beats, allowing people to mill around the stage, lacking focus) derail the book? (Yes.) Does casting Mama Rose, classic stage mother, with a physically unsteady 71 year old actress – with a singing voice that can still deliver marvelous moments – strain credulity to the point of breaking? (Oh my yes.)

Gypsy tells of Rose (Leslie Uggams), a women with children in the American northwest, who pushes her children June (uncredited white Baby June grows into mixed race Alanna Saunders) and Louise (white Baby Louise Madison Young grows into white Amandina Altomare)  to be the success on stage Rose was never able to be. When the act breaks up once adolescence hits, June goes to Hollywood and Louise stays behind and finds a financial mother lode (and a new name) by developing a “gimmick” in seedy and suggestive burlesque.

In 21st century America, the race of actors and race of characters have become two quite separate things. The modern American audience gaze can accept a range of skin tones represented on stage, and accept the fact that race doesn’t always have to be the focus of the story telling.  (Similar issues arose – for me at least –  in the mostly black cast A Streetcar Named Desire that opened on Broadway during the 2011-2012 season. The challenges in that production had nothing at all to do with the choice to cast traditionally white roles in another way but with the balance of the performances.) American audiences might even accept roles that morph, as they do in this Gypsy, from what appears to be a Caucasian girl playing Baby June to a young woman of mixed race playing June as a teenager. What this play and this score cannot support is Vincent J. Cardinal’s tentative direction that misses most of the jokes or Leslie Uggams’ physically tentative Rose. We have to believe the power, we have to trust the artistic instincts, and in this production we trust neither in leading lady or director.

At one point a character in Gypsy delivers the line: “New York is the center of itself.” All kidding aside, some places, some works of art, have a central compass point. New York is sui generis, so this character asserts. Similarly, the gravitation center of Gypsy the stage musical is Mama Rose who sets all the pieces in motion. She must be seen as a force of nature to be railed against and empathized with and loved. In the production currently at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, a tentative acting performance is provided by a somewhat frail septuagenarian, and the musical loses its center of gravity.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 11, 2014)

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