WAKEFIELD, R.I. — On the heels of a successful run of the popular winter music competition “Wakefield Idol,” the Contemporary Theater Company is busting into springtime with a vibrant and ambitious new production of the classic musical, “Gypsy.” Created in 1959 by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), the musical is an exploration of the heart of American show business in the first half of the 20th century. Based on the memoirs of famous striptease artist Gypsy Lee Rose, the show celebrates the variety entertainment tradition of vaudeville as it is driven to extinction by the rise of motion (and talking) pictures (and other forms of entertainment, including the American musical itself). “Gypsy” features some of the most recognizable standards from the tail end of musical theater’s Golden Age, including “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” and “Together, Wherever We Go.” But alongside the music, at the heart of the show there’s a complex and compelling story involving some fascinating characters, including the iconic central figure, Mama Rose.
“Gypsy” was essentially conceived as a star vehicle for the so-called First Lady of the musical comedy stage, Ethel Merman, who originated the role of Mama Rose. The show tells the story of Rose, a single mother who leads her performer children, June and Louise, around the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and ‘30s. The driven and domineering Rose pushes her children – as well as her lover and former agent Herbie – to the breaking point as they face greater odds in their dying industry.
In the director’s notes in the playbill, CTC Artistic Director Chris Simpson is self-reflective about his past resistance to the musical theater form, which has been overcome in recent years with successful productions of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “The Fantasticks.” Each of these musicals found new life in CTC’s smaller, more intimate theater. Simpson is clearly drawn to musicals with a dark streak and rich character studies, and “Gypsy” is no exception.
It takes a special performer take on a larger-than-life character like Mama Rose. Indeed, the part has attracted divas like Merman, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone, who all played the part on Broadway. This is a show, after all, that kicks off its first song (“Some People”) with the iconic line, “some people can get a thrill, knitting sweaters and sitting still – That’s okay for some people who don’t know they’re alive.” At the heart of CTC’s production is Eden Casteel, who most recently appeared at CTC as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and had the title role of “Victor/Victoria” in the Ocean State Theater Company’s final show. Casteel brings a star power and kinetic energy to this fascinating persona, offering a virtuoso performance which drives the show’s momentum as relentlessly as Mama Rose drives her children. In spite of the big songs and brash numbers, this is not a part that is forgiving of someone who cannot act. More than just a two-dimensional depiction of a villainous stage mother, Casteel’s Mama Rose offers a complex glimpse of a strong, resolute, and aggressive woman who pays dearly for her tragic flaws.
As a performer, Casteel is well-matched for director Simpson’s rowdy and energetic variety show vibe. Her talents as a musician lead her directly into the pit to play piano – she even at one point grabs an accordion for accompaniment. Casteel’s natural soprano signing voice also brings new shades and dimension to well-known numbers. From “Some People” to “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” to the show’s closing number, “Rose’s Turn,” Casteel delivers glimpses of Rose’s hope, desperation, defiance, and regret.
Casteel’s performance is well supported by a large cast of 24 performers. She enjoys great chemistry with love interest Herbie, portrayed by Robert Solomon. Solomon is convincing in the role of a loyal show biz survivor – and shows off a lovely baritone singing voice to boot. Speaking of chemistry, Ari Kassabian and Maggie Papa stand out as the sibling duo. Kassabian’s June is a performer with a big personality who seems destined for bigger things. Papa’s Louise makes a remarkable transformation over the course of the show from the wall flower to Gypsy Lee Rose, star of burlesque striptease. Papa painstakingly draws her character’s journey illuminated by the complex sibling and mother-daughter dynamics. This play is full of ragged and neglected characters in desperate need of attention. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Papa’s Louise and her relationship with her mother.
Ensemble players like Carter Santos (Tulsa) and Susie Chakmakian (Agnes) bring a lot to their roles. The crowd-pleasing second act showstopper “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” is not to be missed, featuring Valerie Tarantino, Alija Ileana Dickenson, and Guilted Lily as the strip show artists Tessie, Electra, and Mazeppa (Guilted Lily is noted to be a burlesque performer in her own right). Design elements support the action and themes, particularly the multilevel set design featuring a five-piece band (conducted by musical director Stephen Grueb) smack in the middle of the stage, as well as what might be the first proscenium curtain I’ve seen deployed at CTC.
CTC’s “Gypsy” is thoroughly satisfying, but often resists easy answers, particularly as the show barrels toward its bittersweet ending. In spite of some of the darker themes, the show has a buoyant and upbeat energy. True to form, this is a production that begs to entertain you. The burlesque elements are not salacious and are played for entertainment and as a spotlight into the characters. ”Gypsy” is thus perfectly suited to a general audience of music and theater fans interested in a lively evening of toe-tapping entertainment, rendered alongside compelling narrative. As the show repeatedly insists, “we’ll have a real good time, yes sir!”