Thursday, April 25, 2013

Everything comes up roses in Bay City Players production of "Gypsy"

review by janet i. martineau/photos by kunio ouellette

Laura Peil as Rose
Three strippers bump and grind with their special added attractions. A cow dances and sings. A real-life dog  submits to handling like it was a rag doll.  And  a thrice-married mother from hell somehow manages to win a little sympathy in between her rants.

Welcome to the Bay City Players production of “Gypsy” -- the true life story about the childhood of the woman who became burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

At nearly three hours long its a butt breaker. But director Michael Wisniewski manages to make those three hours seem less by moving things along swiftly -- thanks to a minimal set with a clever layered proscenium designed by Leeds Bird,  rich sounds from the orchestra conducted by Sandra Honsinger, eye pleasing choreography by Holly Bills and a cast with singing fireworks as well as dramatic shadings when needed.

In other words, theater teamwork that clicks in bringing an old warhorse to life despite the fact its mechanics are dated. Thankfully its music by Julie styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim still sound fresh, and its book by Arthur Laurents still hits home when it comes to stage mothers and children who were not their favorite child.

In a cast of nearly 50, somehow they all work more like an ensemble. But there are, of course, standouts.

In this one they are Laura Peil as Rose the dominating stage mother, Danielle Schoeny as her least favorite daughter Louise (who becomes Gypsy Rose Lee) and David Bowden as Herbie, the agent and lover of Rose.

Those are, of course, the three lead roles in this piece so they had better be hot. And they are. Some of their heated exchanges startle the audience in their intensity, And it only took five minutes or so for Peil, whom we have seen in other plays, to become the not-very-nice force of nature Rose and not Laura Peil. 

John Britt and Danielle Schoney
But what is the standout with these three is not so much the bombastic moments but the quiet moments, when just an expression on a face, a gesture or a movement speaks  more -- speaks to the hurt and sadness inside them, in particular Rose. This is the first time in seeing this musical many times I have felt any touch of sympathy for her even if it was fleeting.

And Schoeny in the “All I Need Is the Girl” number, when in the background she mirrors the movements of a single male dancer, well, it is pure heartache.

All three are singing giants as well, but then so is the whole darn cast. Not a sour singer in the lot in 20 songs.

One of the hits of the show is the appearance of three burlesque strippers toward the end. 

Small roles but showstoppers. In this one it was Denyse Clayton as Mazeppa with her long horn, Marla Bearinger as Tessie Tura with her,  umm,  crotch embellishment, and Jessie Wood-Miller as Electra with her lights. 

Yep, they please -- especially Clayton who can always employ a strutting, in-charge, tough shit personality when needed in a role, and it was needed here, and then deliver a little athleticism with her horn that is nearly R-rated.

It was in their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” that the orchestra also has a chance to display some deep jazzy sounds that added to the hilarity of the three actresses.

Wood-Miller also has a second earlier role as a prim theater owner’s secretary who battles with the pushy Mama Rose entourage. It is  a nice contrast to her Electra.

Denyse Clayton as the stripper Mazeppa
The work of choreographer Bills is everywhere, in not just dance numbers but how the cast overall moves. 

One of the neatest effects she created is when the young Newboys literally slide, like a trombone, into the older Farmboys. Another great image is the human limousine driven by Cameron Pichan.

Bravo too for the dancing cow -- the front half Schoeny and the difficult back half inhabited by agile Claire Arndt.

The sharp, sharp set with its  limited set pieces and the costumes just add to the atmosphere the cast is setting.

As for the dog, its name is Chowsie and he is a chorkie, chihuahua, yorkie mix. Short scene with grumpy children’s show host Uncle Jocko (Nathan Cholger) handling  the poor critter like it was a stuffed toy. Put up with it like a true actor.

Good production. Community theater at its best.

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