Before the start of the Arden Theatre Company’s production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable, the sisters-doing-it-for-themselves musical that also (perhaps not coincidentally) often gets called America’s greatest, one of the house’s sponsors offered a few memories. It was 1959 when the show had passed through town; Ethel Merman might have even appeared as Mama Rose. Nolen smiled. Yes, that was Merman in Gypsy’s pre-Broadway Philadelphia tryout.
Queen of the canon
It seems almost silly to explain that Gypsy, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, tells the story of the world’s best/worst stage mother. The real Mama Rose hounded her daughters June and Louise throughout their childhoods, determined that they would be stars no matter what. And they were, no matter what.
June ran away from her overbearing mother and reinvented herself as Hollywood’s June Havoc. Louise became burlesque’s biggest name, Gypsy Rose Lee. Both ceded to their mother’s demands for compensation and cleaned up her messes (including, possibly, murder) until her death in 1957, after which they both wrote tell-all autobiographies. Louise’s formed the spine of Laurents’s fable.
Nolen doesn’t model his Rose after the sort of Merman/Midler big, brassy, indefatigable broads who, if they hadn’t gotten “born too early and started too late,” might have made that wonderful dream come true. Mary Martello, a Philly powerhouse, builds a threadbare Mama out of sensitivity and desperation and sends her on a slowly building journey to the brink. Her approach (and her look, right down to her costuming and her brown bob) has much more in common with Patti LuPone’s 2007 Laurents-directed version.
Are all those comparisons fair? Come on; we’re talking about Mama Rose here, the queen of the canon, and who would mind being a member of that club?
Let them entertain you
Martello starts off so soft it’s almost unsettling; how will she ever manage to pull off slam-bang numbers such as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” or, of course, her grand finale, “Rose’s Turn?” No need to worry, she gets there just fine, helped along the way by a cast filled with worthy matches and a production packed with magic moments.
Martello’s foils include Anthony Heald (Yes, he also played Dr. Chilton, Hannibal Lecter’s The Silence of the Lambs foil) as Herbie, Rose’s kind-hearted, ulcerated boyfriend and the girls’ booking agent. Heald and Martello share a warmth — an up-close-and-personal wriggle from Rose, an admiring smile from Herbie — that allows us to see why he stays and, later, the sharpness of Rose’s betrayal.
Alexa Hunt’s Baby June and Rachel Camp’s grown-up Dainty June each take hilariously comic turns during their high-kicking, spangled, squealing vaudeville routines. Meanwhile, Veronica Nardo’s Baby Louise and Caroline Dooner’s adult Louise watch their vibrant mother and sister with forlorn expressions and slumped shoulders, wearing baggy trousers and shapeless shirts.
Of course, Dooner’s transformation into the famed ecdysiast should be startling, and she pulls it off without, you know, pulling much of it off. (Interesting fact: Dooner also wrote and performed a solo show for 1812 Productions' JillineFest about her own mommy issues.)
You either have it or you've had it
And then there’s that magic. It’s in Tulsa’s (Malik Alil) jubilant tap-dancing, leaping “All I Need Is the Girl.” It’s also in the stripper anthem “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” during which Electra (mollish Meghan Strange), far-over-the-hill Tessie Tura (Monica Horan, who boldly bumps and grinds lots of jiggling, exposed skin of a certain age) and trombone-honking Mazeppa (Joilet Harris, always a joyous presence) offer the nascent Gypsy sleazy sisterhood and friendly advice.
Nolen occasionally lets the production tip too far into comedy, but the first act bustles so brightly with children and Rose’s endearingly slipshod maternal instincts that it rights itself quickly. Richard St. Clair’s costumes err on the side of either too simple or too family-friendly (Electra’s costume, bedecked with big, lighting-shaped cutouts, overwhelms the capable Strange).
But James Krozner’s set, a spare black backstage with the orchestra set in three-tiered, caged columns on either side of a freestanding proscenium, gets to the heart of the fictions Rose must create in order to avoid looking at the emptiness all around her. Thom Weaver’s lighting, like Rose, starts full and slowly gets pared down to its essence: one stark spotlight showing everything she’s got.