Review: Hats off (and gloves, and stockings and…) to ‘Gypsy’

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Let’s get right to the point: the ending. It’s the final number of “Gypsy,” when Rose — the ultimate stage mother from hell — bares her soul, extricates herself from lifelong enslavement to dreams for her daughters, and admits that everything she wanted for the girls was really for her.

The number, “Rose’s Turn,” is as iconic as any operatic aria. At Arden Theatre Company’s opening night of “Gypsy” on Wednesday, Mary Martello threw herself into it and proceeded to tear her character’s heart out, and you could sense that not only her character, but the history of this song, was driving her.

Martello comes onto the stage like a hound thirsty for blood — her mouth is poised to spew poison, her eyes pierce the audience. After Rose’s years of attempting to push her daughters to the top of show business, only to realize she’s no longer needed — or worse, wanted — an epiphany is at hand.

By this time in the show, Martello has both the posture and the qualities of a fireplug. She makes her character undentable, but inside there’s plenty to gush out in her mezzo soprano glory. Martello has reacted, and elicited reactions, in so many roles on so many city stages over the decades, but never like this. “Rose’s Turn” is one of those moments you don’t forget when you see it done from an actress’ spiritual core. I won’t forget this one.

“If you have a good ending, they’ll forgive you anything!” Rose earlier tells her questionably talented daughter Louise, the focus of her stage dreams after her made-for-the-stage daughter June bails out on her. Maybe so, but there’s little to forgive and a whole lot to enjoy about this “Gypsy,” staged by Arden’s producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen. Of course, there are the songs by Jule Styne and Steven Sondheim — even if you’ve never seen the show, you know “Let Me Entertain You, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Together Wherever We Go” and others. And there’s also Nolen’s production, with clever tweaks that render this “Gypsy” unusual and make it fresh.

These begin with the overture delivered by an excellent 10-musician orchestra sequestered in three-level lattice towers on either side of the stage. From the first notes, Martello comes out on stage as a confused, then angry woman. Around her, characters we’ve not yet met dance bits and pieces of the scenes they’re about to enact. Then the show begins and rolling notes, as in a Brecht production, appear on stage columns with each scene. They tell us the city where the scene’s set and a few words about its theme. But they also inform Rose. She walks to them as a scene begins. She considers the content. She sometimes gives a nod of recognition.

Is this “Gypsy” a memory play, seen from the back of an old lady’s mind? An intriguing notion, but I wasn’t certain until Caroline Dooner, playing Rose’s overlooked daughter Louise, began the pensive and semi-sweet song called “Little Lamb.” As she did, Veronica Nardo, who’d been playing the younger version of herself, came into the scene and the two finished the song as a duet. It was a lovely moment — clearly the sort of experience you have in any memory of your younger self. It’s also not called for in the script, but within the bounds of a director’s storytelling choices because it doesn’t change a playwright’s wording (in this case, Arthur Laurents, who wrote the “Gypsy” book) or intent.

I wish the memory theme would have been carried through — Nolen clearly doesn’t want to impose on the play, but he mostly underplays the memory clues in the second act when Mama Rose gets down to the wrenching business of leaving cornbread vaudeville and going to the only remaining circuit, saucy burlesque. That’s when Louise learns to pop from her shell and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee evolves. (The story is loosely based on the real person.) It’s always struck me that even though Rose is such a demanding part, Louise’s may be the most difficult. She has to transform from a timid wallflower to an eloquent bouquet during the course of the show, and be believable throughout. Dooner is, and she generates the most empathy.

This “Gypsy” was only hovering during the first 20 minutes, when it has a showy transparency that stifles possible laugh-lines and tells us we’re watching a set-up for the evening. But when Rose’s young troupe brings a “cow” on-stage — a costumed animal, with googly eyes and moving ears and changing emotions — the production suddenly takes off and continues to soar. The show’s ensemble songs are richly performed, and the less celebrated pieces are exceptional. Malik Akil, playing one of Mama Rose’s chorus boys, sings a song for the new routine he’s secretly creating, and beautifully dances up a storm. (Jenn Rose’s choreography for this is thrilling.) Joliet F. Harris, Meghan Strange and Monica Horan knock out the house as strippers who teach Louise their gimmicks — an audience-pleaser that works wonderfully at the Arden.

The chisled Anthony Heald (TV’s “Boston Public” and “Boston Legal”) gives a solid quality to Herbie, the man Rose finagles into being the troupe’s manager; his feet-on-the-ground characterization balances Rose’s combustion. Versatile local actress Rachel Camp plays Louise’s sister, June, the candied apple of Mama Rose’s eye. David Bardeen and H. Michael Walls play a number of surly theater managers and operators. The rest of the large ensemble — 21 in all — gives solid support.

“She can make herself believe anything she makes up,” says Louise about her pushy mother and the stream of dreams she pursues. That’s meant as a damning portrait of Rose, but it’s also a definition of theater that works. A lot of people are believing what the creative team of “Gypsy” and this production made up, or at least believing in it enough to have created a buzz during previews — enough to extend its run a week, announced just before opening night.

ADDENDUM: It occurs to me after posting this piece that I didn’t mention the costumes, which are especially important for “Gypsy” — they include different clothes for all the performances by Mama Rose’s troop of kids, specialty costumes for three strippers, everyday wear from the vaudeville era and more. They add much to the fun and style of Arden’s “Gypsy,” and are designed by Richard St. Clair. 

“Gypsy” is extended through June 25 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street just north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.

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