Connecticut Theatre Company’s “Gypsy” Is a Star

Having never seen “Gypsy,” closing this weekend at the Repertory Theatre in New Britain, I spend two-thirds of the show wondering how it got its name.

At first, I thought the musical was all about Seattle’s Mama Rose (Susan Smith Thom), the ultimate show mom who wants one of her daughters would be a star as she lives vicariously through them. And then it seemed the focus of the story was on her baby, June (Kristi Yurko as young June and Becky Sawicki as the older June), the one she wants to make a star, but she runs away after years of her mother forcing her to do a childish act and treating her like she’s 9 going on 10. But it isn’t until later in Act 2 that we hear the title mentioned and understand why it’s called “Gypsy.”

In this case, that reason is Kristen Norris, playing Louise, who goes from a second string daughter to a burlesque legend. Louise is supposed to be the daughter with no talent, and besides Norris’s powerful voice, she pulls it off well, getting a lot of laughs as an awkward youth who doesn’t really want to be a performer but who is forced into it. Despite being a trained dancer, Norris fakes being a clumsy dancer well.  While she doesn’t look remotely close to Yumeko Stern, who plays a young, quiet Louise who wants her mother’s attention, she develops the character well showing the aftermath of always playing second fiddle to June. She develops her character, taking her from a twitchy tween or teen to a refined, elegant force to be reckoned with as she gains celebrity status as Gypsy Rose. Norris tells her character’s story with her face, so you can imagine what Louise is thinking at any given moment.

Even though June runs away in Act 1 and is never seen again in Act 2, Sawicki is not forgotten as the character. Her dancing makes her stand out from her flexibility to do splits to her grace in a ballroom routine with Tulsa (Stephen Michelsson), who is also light on his feet with fancy footwork and energy. Then there’s Sawicki’s classically trained, sweet operatic soprano voice that makes her shine.  She is also expressive and you really feel for her as June as her mother negotiates the terms of a gig meant to make her a star and she emotes the sorrow as her mother’s hover parent nature overwhelms her while she watches her own dream potentially slip away due to Mama Rose’s demands.

The transition from Yurko to Sawicki is flawless and they were cast well as the younger and older June, though the blond wigs certainly help you see the resemblance. The first thing I noticed about Yurko was her dynamic reactions to everything going on in a scene. She doesn’t have to have a line to be present in the scene. Then I started to count how many splits she did in the show (think I saw three). She also excelled as a dancer.

As for Mama Rose, at first I found Thom’s acting to be understated and flat, but it built up as her character becomes more obsessive about making her daughters stars as passion, determination and eventually rage bubble up inside her as a mother living vicariously through her children’s success. She is the most impressive when she sings and is a strong belter with a beautiful voice.

She pairs well with Peter Bailey as Herbie, the agent turned candyman turned agent who will do anything for Mama Rose to get her to marry him. Bailey gives off a humble air about him and seems to be the most grounded character, even if he doesn’t always speak up about what’s bothering him. But his singing speaks loudly for him. The richness of his booming operatic voice is almost too big for the small space of the quaint Repertory Theatre. He fills the room with his sound, a voice that belongs in a much larger venue like the main stage at the Warner Theatre.

My favorite scene was probably when the burlesque performers are teaching the innocent Louise about the trade and the importance of gimmicks. The first one brought jazziness to her belting and I really enjoyed Vin Cassotta’s purposefully bad, screeching trumpet playing in that scene as the sound of her instrument prop.

As for the story, a lot happens in “Gypsy.” I saw it essentially broken up into three story lines — Mama Rose’s push for June to be a star with Louise in the rings as the sister on the bench, then her grappling to make Louise succeed and fulfill her dream of fame in the entertainment world even though she doesn’t feel it’s her calling and finally Louise’s transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee in the burlesque scene. You start off thinking it’s all about Mama Rose and June, but really, it’s Louise’s story, whether she’s the star or not at any given point in the play.

The real star of the show, besides the aforementioned actors, is Webster the dog. It’s the first local show that I’ve seen with a live animal and he seemed to be enjoying himself as much as anyone else when he was on stage, tail wagging.

But I also have to hand it to the ensemble for playing multiple roles and bringing something different to each one of them. The crowd sighed with sympathy every time Lauren Hyne left the stage whimpering and she also brought humor to her roles as Agnes (or Amanda) and a show girl. Jeanie D. Wright also drew a lot of laughs. It was hard to keep track of who Michelsson was playing from Tulsa to an announcer to Monsieur Bourgeron Cochon, but he made each one distinct.

When the play shifted in time to the older characters, it was confusing whether the female ensemble were supposed to be the older Vaudeville boys or new female characters dressed in the same boys outfits given Mama Rose’s propensity for tradition in her acts. Hats or wigs would have helped make that clearer.

The set transitions left much to be desired and were a little clunky, sometimes delaying the start of the scene and one time props fell off the set piece. However, that was all while the lights were down and once the scenes started up again, you forgot about it.

The most touching moment comes at the end when Gypsy and Mama Rose walk hand in hand upstage and part the curtain. The lighting on the dark backdrop makes it look like they are about to walk out into the spotlight together for the performance of a lifetime.

And you are in for a treat if you see this show.

It closes at 2 p.m. at 23 Norden Street in New Britain and you can purchase tickets at the door. You can find more information about tickets and the production at www.connecticuttheatrecompany.org/season/gypsy.

Farmington Valley Stage Company’s “Critic’s Choice”: The Review

Frankenstein’s monster paraded all over Critic’s Choice at the Farmington Valley Stage Company on Saturday in Collinsville.

That might be the sort of “black box” shredding review Broadway theater critic Parker Ballantine (Christopher Berrien) would give a play that he hates, but in this case his words about his wife’s debut play, though a minuscule moment in the show, are intended here to illustrate hints of literary symbolism about Critic’s Choice, written by Ira Levin, as opposed to casting judgement.

Here’s why. Just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starts off with a more distant perspective through a letter, the play opens with the seemingly cheerful, happy-go-lucky home of the Ballentines as they each read a newspaper sharing stories through the text they are consuming. They don’t seem to have any problems.

Then, Frankenstein steps into the story of the scientist and his creation. In Critic’s Choice, we also peel away more layers, starting with Angela (Terri D’Arcangelo), who we learn is Parker’s second wife, declaring out of the blue that she wants to write a play much to his dismay as a renowned critic. He and his son, John (Timothy Scalzo) make snide remarks about her venture, betting against her from the onset that she’ll never finish the script. Parker’s reaction to a wife writing a play could be viewed as reminiscent of how Shelley faced suppression of the female voice as a writer.

Angela becomes consumed by the play she is creating, much like Frankenstein mad at work trying to create life and Shelley writing a book. The monster in Shelly’s novel, the voice at the center of the book, can be viewed as symbolic of Shelley’s anxiety over writing the story, her own monstrous creation of sorts.  There are also references to Angela having a problem bearing children, which can also be double meaning for her figurative baby, her play. It is said that Shelley also had worries over being a mother, not knowing if the child born would wreak havoc and have monstrous qualities. In a way, Angela’s play becomes a beast and a monster that begins tearing the seemingly perfect family apart

Angela becomes somewhat of a monster herself, consumed with overprotectiveness over her baby, or play, valuing what she wants to hear over the truth. Honesty is something Parker views as his honor in his work, so he is faced with the moral dilemma when he wants to review her play. Should he be truthful or should or should he write a nice review so he won’t hurt her feelings? Should he even review her play at all? Eventually, the story comes full circle structurally after the review just as Frankenstein ends again with the letters.

There’s no doubt that each member of the cast has talent. Berrien’s Parker had range, from the jesting, devoted husband to the angry, stubborn ethical critic to the emotional alcoholic. Arcangelo seemed to play two different characters as Angela, turning a complete 180 from sweet and bubbly to bitter, defensive, entitled and angry. While both actors were talented individually, the chemistry and connection between them didn’t seem to really set in until their characters were at war with each other. That’s when the most passionate expression seemed to evolve. Betsy Bradley, who played Charlotte “Charlie” Orr, Angela’s mother, had the most genuine demeanor and mannerisms. Her reactions were honest and frank, making her believable.

Scalzo had the best one-liners as John, speaking more maturely than his age with some adult humor thrown in that sparked laughter because of the shock factor.

Dian Pomeranz played an understated maid, Essie with very funny lines and reactions as a character on the fringe of the story.

Virginia Freese, who played Parker’s ex-wife, actress Ivy London, who his marriage ended with because he gave her a bad review, was energetic and a force to be reckoned with in the play. She drew attention in her scenes in her scarlet-accented outfits and ruby red heels. That was partially thanks to the costuming done by Cindy Braunlich, who particularly gave the characters some glitz, glamour and sparkle as they get ready to go to the theater.

Rodney K. payed Dion Kapakos, the director who picks up Angela’s show, and showed strength in comedic timing, character voicing and you’ll never forget that laugh.

The set, designed by technical director Ken Jones, was incredibly detailed from the books and notes on the desk in Parker’s office to the decor in their living room. It looked like a real apartment and it helped that no set pieces needed to be moved. The production recycled some set pieces from 9 to 5 and My Favorite Year with Theatre Guild of Simsbury, the latter of which Berrien starred in.

Critic’s Choice is three acts, which seems to be rare on stage nowadays, with just a 15-minute intermission between Acts 1 and 2, so be prepared to be sitting for awhile for what is a lengthy, but interesting, dialogue-driven play.

This marked the Farmington Valley Stage Company’s first production under the new management of executive director Doreen Cohn, who also directed the production,Ron Faibusch, who is the president and business manager, and Jones, who is the vice president and theater manager.

Hopefully it is one of many great ones to come. And hey, that Frankenstein might be a monster of a book, but it’s a classic. No, the play is not about Frankenstein and maybe the author never intended it to be as symbolic as this reviewer has made it, but for some reason the line referencing the monster in Parker’s review made me think more and more about that book.  So, Angela, was Parker’s review really a “black box” or was it a “white box”? You’ll have to see it to find out what that means. In the end, it’s all a matter of perspective. The show runs through March 21 and is at the Canton Town Hall auditorium on Main Street in Collinsville. Grab a drink at Wilson’s, Francesca’s or Crown & Hammer first before heading to the quaint theater in a charming, artsy town.

Remaining shows are March 13, 14, 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. and March 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 online with a $1.50 processing fee and $22 at the door for adults and $18 for students and seniors online, plus the processing fee, or $20 at the door. More information on the show and tickets is available on the Farmington Valley Stage Company’s website, www.fvstage.org.