Gypsy is a full-blooded and wonderful musical with an outstanding pedigree. With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, it could hardly go wrong and it did not in 1959 when it opened on Broadway or today as one of the main productions at the Shaw Festival. Directed by Jay Turvey, the performers hit all the right notes and the thought that went through my mind while watching was that they don’t make them like they used to.
Gypsy is the story of Rose Hovick (Kate Hennig), the almost mythical stage mother who has or had dreams of showbusiness success of her own but eventually concentrated on promoting her daughters Louise (Hanna Otta as Baby Louise and Julie Lumsden as an adult) and June (Ariana Abudaqa as Baby June Madelyn Kriese as an adult) in the rough-and-tumble world of vaudeville in the 1920s and 1930s). Louise eventually became the famous Gypsy Rose Lee.
The show opens and ends (except for “Rose’s Turn” sung by Rose) with “Let me entertain you,” sung haltingly by Baby June and Baby Louise after the gorgeous Overture and in full throat by Louise and the Show Girls as a finale. But the show ends with Rose Hovick’s coda, “Rose’s Turn” where she admits that she had a dream that did not come true. Louise comforts her with the thought that Rose did not have a mother to push her. Rose Hovick muses that she was born at the wrong time and went into vaudeville, an art form that was dying. A beautiful and in-your-face self-assessment. And it is a great follow-up to her “Some People” sung at the beginning where she defiantly sings that some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and living in a living room “but some people ain’t me!”
Kate Hennig is a bigger-than-life mother Rose. She is fearless, aggressive, loud, unstoppable and meets every failure with forceful ambition to succeed the next time. Her dream of show business success for her daughters has no bounds. She convinces Herbie (Jason Cadieux), a former booking agent who went into the candy business to become the manager of her children’s act. He accepts. Cadieux turns in an excellent performance as a decent man caught in the whirlwind of Rose’s daunting character and overwhelming ambition and dream for her daughters. Hennig dominates the production and our (and her) realization that she did not do it all for her daughter. She succeeded only vicariously but the initial and fundamental drive was for herself. That is the supreme and moving part of the musical and of Rose’s life.
We watch the character of Louise develop from a child performer (Hannah Otta) pushed by her mother to keep going even when she was no longer a child to the reluctant, frightened adult Louise (Julie Lumsden) who painfully emerges as the independent, superb vaudeville performer Gypsy Rose Lee. I do not hesitate to assign kudos to Otta and Abudaqa (baby June) but the highest marks for a stunning performance go to Lumsden.
Gypsy demands a large production. There are numerous scene changes from hotels to backstage to vaudeville houses. The sets and beautiful costumes are designed expertly by Cory Sincennes who deserves high marks for his work. Genny Sermonia provides superb choreography for a show that places high demands on dancing. Jay Turvey deserves a standing ovation for his directing a big and complex production.
The final irony is that the success of Louise as Gypsy Rose Lee came about because of performances in a burlesque dive as a striptease artist. She had to perform there because she and her mother had to pay for necessities. Louise as Gypsy Rose Lee (1911 – 1970) achieved success as an actor, author, playwright and, of course, dancer. In 1957 she wrote Gypsy: A Memoir on which the musical Gypsy is loosely based. In the end her mother Rose Hovick achieved the fame and success that she craved, albeit posthumously.
Gypsy by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) continues until October 7, 2023, at the Festival Theatre of the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.