Artistic Director Chris Simpson makes note of his hesitancy to embrace the musical theater format in the program notes for his current production of Gypsy, running through May 11 at Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield. Simpson’s goals, when it comes to musicals, is to forego the flash and dazzle of big-budget efforts (or the effort to mimic such productions) and, instead, focus on “Intensity. Intimacy. Personal Engagement … the feeling that the show wouldn’t happen without you here, or at least, that it would somehow be different, probably lesser, if you weren’t here.” As such, CTC tends to veer toward “chamber musicals,” productions that lend themselves to more focus on the characters with a spare, but effective orchestra, often fully in view of the audience throughout the show. And, even in efforts like this past season’s remarkable take on Little Shop of Horrors, the emphasis was on the human toll of the events, not the singing plants and chorus girls.
Such is the case with his approach toward Gypsy, one of many Sondheim-associated pieces that CTC has taken on over the past few years. Originally more or less a vehicle for Ethel Merman (as Mama Rose, the quintessential overbearing stage mom), Gypsy’s tale of show business in the dying days of vaudeville is often short on character on long on brassy showstoppers accompanied by some more-or-less risqué burlesque. Simpson strips (all puns intended) away the titillation and lets his actors tell the story, focusing on the character arcs of Rose (a multifaceted and utterly compelling Eden Casteel) and her second banana of a daughter, Louise (a splendidly subtle Maggie Papa).
We’re first met with a cavalcade of junior performers who are supposed to be in a frenzied “no mothers allowed” cattle call, but Mama Rose can’t help inserting herself (and her favorite daughter, Baby June) into the spotlight. June, in all her forms (first, Ruby Costa and then Ari Kassabian take turns at portraying Rose’s little star) is a product of Rose’s desperation, longing to not only put food on the table, but to live vicariously through her daughter. The constant is a blonde wig, a symbol of the artifice that Louise, once she comes into her own and out of Rose’s shadow, eschews for a more honest approach to entertainment, as sullied as that may still be. Soon enough, Rose is courted by a former agent who dusts off his business cards and drops his salesman suitcase in order to guide Rose and her motley crew of overage juveniles towards not just success, but something resembling a normal life. Robert Solomon’s portrayal of Herbie is static, but charming, in a matinee-idol meets Billy Budd kind of way, and serves as a kindly foil for Casteel’s roller coaster ride of thwarted ambition.
It’s notable that Simpson doesn’t include the usual song listings in the program, either, reinforcing the notion that the story is key, not a collection of song and dance numbers with some dialogue thrown in between. As we see Rose’s children (biological and otherwise) grow up and out of performing in wigs and cow costumes, the showdown between Louise (who takes over as the star of the show by default when Dainty June jumps ship) and Rose becomes the centerpiece of the story. Maggie Papa’s transition from awkward and quiet seamstress to overconfident burlesque star is nicely done, with none of the, “Well, I guess this is what’s happening now,” leaps of faith that most audiences are forced to make when watching productions of Gypsy. Even the actual burlesque performers, extravagant costumes by Marissa Dufault aside, are more plot device than egregious distraction, and help contrast the understated, sly seductiveness that Papa’s “Gypsy Rose Lee” embodies.
In the end, however, this Gypsy is still a star vehicle and Casteel gets to show off not only her stage presence, but her musical chops, butting in to impatiently take over piano accompaniment, even grabbing an accordion from her bag of tricks. As Simpson notes, “We have enormous freedom to play with the possibilities of this show. [Casteel] can slide over and accompany songs from the piano when Rose wants more control of the people around her.” Using her musicality as a character choice, her fragility becomes ever more apparent as those around her continue to fall by the wayside. “I was born too soon and I started too late,” laments Rose, and each song comes off as a lyric monologue, as opposed to an overbloated showtune.
The large ensemble acquits itself well, with many opportunities for character work, mostly in the small moments that are sprinkled throughout the production. Charlie Santos takes on several personas, mostly as various versions of the jaded, gruff bookers of vaudeville/burlesque shows. Susie Chakmakian is delightful without drawing focus as Agnes, a member of Rose’s dancing chorus. Valerie Tarantino brings a dippy sweetness to Tessie, one of the three past-their-prime strippers that embrace and encourage Louise. It’s a cast with children and animals, a stumbling block for any director, and Simpson makes it all work.
All of this unfolds on a compelling set (credited to multiple designers) with a wraparound ramp that encircles Stephen Grueb’s highly capable orchestra (which includes Casteel’s husband Ron Cowie on percussion). The “stage on the stage” rests above the ramp, with alternate action taking place on the floor as well as the now indispensable balcony area far upstage left (Simpson reserves the balcony for some of the “heavier” action in his productions, including as a purgatory for all of the victims in Little Shop). Again, the production is not about glitz and heavy technical elements – CTC does not use (or need) sound reinforcement for its musicals – lending itself to an intimacy and engagement lacking in most musicals. As Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie Tura tell us, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” but Simpson and CTC would rather just tell us a story, and this Gypsy manages to do so with class.
The Contemporary Theater Company presents Gypsy through May 11. Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. Tickets for performances and more information are available online at www.contemporarytheatercompany.com or by calling 401-218-0282.