THEATER REVIEW: “Gypsy” @ Beck Center by Roy Berko

Through Sun 8/12

Gypsy is a 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, which starred Ethel Merman on Broadway. The script is loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, and focuses on her mother, Rose whose name has become synonymous with the ultimate intrusive show business mother.

The show’s legendary score includes “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Together Wherever We Go,”

Every once in a while, a theater stages a script that allows it to showcase that it is, hopefully, a quality venue. Gypsy was a chance for Beck Center for the Arts to spotlight that it deserves to be the professional theater that it has recently become. Yes, Beck is now playing with the “big boys,” rivaling Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater and Dobama, all equity houses, for a display of excellence.

Gypsy is considered by many American musical theater experts to be one of the most perfectly structured scripts. It has a strong human story, vocal lyrics flow out of the spoken lines, the dance numbers aren’t thrown in to be showstoppers but to enhance the story, the humor is generated by the human condition, the characters are real, and the conflicts caused by human needs and wants.

One thing that makes Gypsy stand out for any theater aficionado is “Rose’s Turn,” the closing number which, like the brilliant “Soliloquy” in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel reveals the “I Want,” “I Am,” and the “Realization” of a central character.

In the case of Mama Rose, this is the moment that she recognizes that instead of her having been the fierce stage mother for her girls, she was doing it for herself, trying to live her desired life as a performer through her daughter’s stage presentations. Ideally, at the play’s closing, as she stands alone in a single spotlight, we should see Rose, both defeated and aware, realizing she, like Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman, has lived her life as a failed dream. (Pause…slow fade to black! Pause. Tumultuous applause.)

Was Beck up to the Gypsy challenge?  On the positive side, Martin Céspedes’ choreography was spot on. He did the original Broadway choreographer, Jerome Robbins, proud by keeping the intent of the great Robbins’ dance numbers present, but not imitating or restaging them. Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra and musical direction generally developed the needed dynamics and mood changes, though at times some members of the cast sang lyrics rather than the meaning of those lyrics.

Aaron Benson’s set design and Trad Burns lighting helped enhance the story. And always an unexpected treat at Beck, the sound system worked well.   Congrats to Angie Hayes.

On the other hand, the cast, which was generally strong, needed guidance on how to develop the subtleties of some of the characterizations and how to effortlessly segue from spoken word to sung lyrics. As is, there were often awkward pauses, breaking the mood and idea development.

Strong performances were turned in by Allen O’Reilly as Herbie, Rose’s long frustrated suitor, and Emmy Brett as Louise.  Enrique Miguel (Tulsa), June’s eventual boyfriend, was the dance sensation of the cast, displaying a confidence of movement and stage-commanding appeal.

Natalie Bialock’s Rose, an Ethel Merman reincarnation, big and brassy, worked well for most of the show. Merman was a great personality and songsmith, but not a fine actress. Her “Rose’s Turn” left much to be desired, as did Bialock’s. The final Beck scene was not helped by Rose and Gypsy’s arm-in-arm exit, wiping out the meaning of Rose’s realization.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Gypsy is one of the classic scripts in the lexicon of American musical theater. It gets an acceptable, but definitely not a great staging at Beck. The show’s highlight was the choreography. The production will entertain some people, but could have been so much more.

Gypsy runs at Beck Center for the Arts through Sun 8/12. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go  to beckcenter.org.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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