By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
With the final production of its 50th anniversary year, Summer Lyric Theatre (SLT) at Tulane has pulled off an amazing series under the helm of artistic director Michael McKelvey and “Gypsy” is the cherry on top of its sweet confectionary of Broadway classics old and new.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, “Gypsy” is like the perfect trifecta of Jewish musical talent. It begins with one of the greatest overtures in Broadway history and tells the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, the fabled burlesque queen and the story of her hard and strident stage mother Rose, who sacrificed everything to make her children stars of the stage. But Gypsy is not merely the story of one dysfunctional theatre family, it is also a diluted history of vaudeville and the rise of burlesque theatre in its place.
Elizabeth Argus has led many previous casts at SLT in starring roles, but this is one role that is practically made for her. Her belting voice is in tremendous shape and her comeliness and stage presence are both palpable. From the first time she enters the theater shouting “Sing out, Louise!,” Argus commands attention and respect. The demanding role with songs like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Mr. Goldstone,” “Some People,” “Small World” and the finale “Rose’s Turn” is challenging, but Argus more than rises to the occasion to add expressiveness and small comedic bits that are appreciated by her audience.
While not as accomplished a singer as Argus, Bob Edes, Jr. (Herbie) holds his own in duets with her (“Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me”) as well as the trio of “Together, Wherever We Go” with Meredith Owens as Louise, the talentless daughter who goes on to become the celebrated burlesque star. In truth the role of Herbie is noted for his importance in certain scenes as an actor and it is there that very few can rise to the level of comedic timing and insight into character that Edes brings into his portrayal.
When it’s Owens’ turn to start to shine as Gypsy Rose Lee, she does so tentatively. Her earlier solo rendition of “Little Lamb” is expressive and her duet with Tatum Ludlam as June in “If Momma Was Married” is exceptional. During Act II’s “Let Me Entertain You,” where her status as a star is established, however, there is an expectation that she should be more self-assured and comfortable with her role as a burlesque star, most especially in the final turns.
The key number in which the world of vaudeville devolves into burlesque is expressed in the colorful and comedic “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” featuring Mazeppa (Marlene Thian), Tessie Tura (Jauné Buisson) and Elektra (Diane Lala). Always a crowd pleaser, this lineup of talent is especially endearing since Buisson was the choreographer of SLT’s previous production of Hairspray and Lala is the current choreographer and was the choreographer and director for their first production of Annie Get Your Gun. While the costumes in this number are good – there have been others in previous local productions (including SLT) that were even more flamboyant – the singing of all three is immaculate. It is a real and rare pleasure to hear them all sing their separate portions and then to harmonize at song’s end.
Keith Claverie has three roles of Uncle Jocko, Mr. Kringelein and Cigar, which he plays with expert comedic timing and finesse. Aside from her Act II stint as Tessie Tura, Buisson also has smaller roles as Mother and Miss Cratchitt, the flakcatcher for a famous Broadway producer.
McKelvey’s direction of the production is brilliant, while David Raphel’s scenic design is quite pleasing, especially with so many scene changes present in the work.
Leonard Raybon’s expert handling of the baton brings the richness of Styne’s music to the fore and allows Sondheim’s magnificent lyrics to rise with each crescendo. As music director and conductor, he is among a very few who can elicit such rich and brilliant playing from his musicians. It is a testament to SLT that they have always used live musicians in their work throughout five decades.
“Gypsy: A Musical Fable” continues at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall tonight and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For tickets call 504-865-5269.