If I were Gypsy’s stage mother, I’d point my finger toward the Off Broadway Theater and insist, “this way, everyone,” and “a little louder with the applause, please.” When I head over to catch the Wednesday night dress rehearsal, I’m pulling out my phone, expecting to have to call to get in. Instead, I find a line outside of the theater and a student crowd ready to fill one third of the seats just for the run-through performance, with the show’s four-day weekend slate still on the horizon.
Gypsy is set during the decline of American vaudeville in the 1960’s, as Rose (Chandler Rosenthal ‘14) attempts to herd her two daughters, June (Sarah Chapin ‘17) and Louise (Lucie Ledbetter ‘15) toward Broadway stardom. Rose dreams up a children’s singing and dancing act, hunts down a couple of boys to round out her troupe, and snags her agent and romantic interest, Herbie (Iason Togias ‘16). But the harder she pushes and manipulates, the quicker the vaudeville market dwindles away. Gypsy chronicles the family’s emotional struggles, culminating in Louise’s rise as Gypsy Rose Lee, one of America’s most famous strip-tease artists.
Full of emotional complexities and with a demanding score, Gypsy would be an ambitious performance for any undergraduate group. Nevertheless, Ethan Karetsky ’14, determined to tease out the story’s rich psychological edge, valiantly takes it on as his senior project. The curtain opens on a vulnerable, elderly Rose as she watches her children perform onstage via a nursing home television set – a clever interpretation of the original script. The production uses Gypsy’s potential for quiet scenes that allow its talented cast to capture emotional subtleties. Ledbetter nails these in her transformation from vaudeville flop to burlesque star, striking the difficult balance of terrified, loving and visionary, all while achieving a lovely vocal performance. And when Chapin sings about leaving vaudeville to perform on Broadway, I almost believe it. Rosenthal successfully performs Rose as a deeply conflicted character that the audience can simultaneously love and loathe. Other noteworthy performances are Tulsa’s (Christian Probst ‘16) dance solo and Togias’ lovable Herbie. And I couldn’t review the Yale production of Gypsy without singing the praises of the production’s two child stars, Veronica Nardo (Baby June) and Rosa Nardo (Baby Louise) – it’s worth going to Gypsy just to watch their adorable first ten minutes.
Gypsy doesn’t drop the details. Clever scenery plays a huge role in the musical’s success. Backdrops are projected against the far wall of the theater, which might seem halfhearted, but in Karetsky’s nursing home context adds another layer of understanding to his interpretation of the classic musical. Otherwise, set design is simple and bare, an unexpected artistic choice against the context of the showy burlesque world that brings the familial relations into the spotlight. I’m tapping my feet for the pit orchestra’s delivery of a triumphant, energetic performance from the downbeat to the end. And I’m still mystified by how Gypsy pulled off the dancing cow – two actors expertly maneuvering a cow suit during one of Rose’s vaudeville children’s performances.
Even though theater has certainly heard this routine before, Karetsky makes Gypsy his own, harnessing the strengths of the Yale theater community to deliver a smart and subtle production with a clean sound. Go this weekend, not only to experience Karetsky’s artistic vision, but for a cast that delivers a performance with maturity, energy and precision. Gypsy needs no stage mother – it’s a great act, ready to make a splash on its own this weekend.