FORT WORTH A recurring song in the musical Gypsy is Dainty June’s rehashed number May We Entertain You, and sure enough, this musical masterpiece is likely to oblige. That’s thanks to Jule Styne’s unforgettable music and songs, Arthur Laurents’ book that’s “suggested by” the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, who was honing a craft that he would later dominate.
It’s such a fantastic, loveable show that even a better-than-amateur but still mediocre production, like the one from Stolen Shakespeare Guild, can be entertaining. Because it’s so well loved, however, the disappointments also cut more deeply.
Directed by Bill Sizemore and with music direction by Mary Helen Atkins, playing an upright piano and leading two other musicians (Kristin Martin McKinley on electronic keyboard and Nick Mercer on percussion), SSG’s production starts off with a shaky overture, but things perk up when Jenny Tucker as Mama Rose, one of musical theater’s greatest roles, takes the stage.
She doesn’t bluster in like you’ve seen with other Roses, and overall hers is a tad softer, but also richly textured. Her “stage monster” persona comes more from a sad place of desperation, which works out nicely with her finale number, Rose’s Turn, when disappointment, frustration and jealousy can’t be contained any longer.
What’s missing in the opening scene — and it’s a problem throughout — is snap. For a show with fast cues and lots of hustling on and off stage, there’s no sense of urgency here. Dani Altshuler and Mary Strauss are cute as Baby June and Baby Louise, respectively, and the vaudeville sights swirling around them are appropriately not great — they’re not supposed to be. It was second-rate vaudeville, after all.
Connie Marie Brown plays adult Louise, who goes from sidelines to stardom — the kind Mama Rose always wanted for June, or herself — and is best when she’s longing for something she won’t get, like the notice of chorus guy Tulsa (terrific hoofer and vocalist Dustin Simington). Her transition into a real star is playful at first, and but never quite commanding enough.
Robert Banks gives us a terrific Herbie with whom we truly empathize, and Anna-Marie Boyd’s Dainty June is a hoot. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the trio of strippers who become early mentors to Rose’s girls when vaudeville dies and burlesque takes over.
Electra (Becca Brown), Tessie (Georgia Fender) and Mazeppa (Cassie Martinez) have the show-stopping number You Gotta Get a Gimmick, and while the gimmicks are funny (especially Electra’s light-up outfit), none of these performers goes far enough. To boot, their “bumps” are noticeably off.
It’s a really large show to put in the Sanders Theatre, and SSG doesn’t find a successful way to meld the intimate with the big — which is surprising considering that the group regularly and handily stages large Shakespeare casts. The late scene in Louise’s dressing room, for instance, is perplexingly hampered by the placement of Louise’s vanity and lighted mirror, the top of which hides the heads of Louise and Rose, at least from the third row. (Sizemore is also responsible for scene design.)
There’s got to be a gimmick to fix a mistake like that.