“Clear the decks! Clear the tracks! You got nothing to do but relax”, as “One More Productions”, the resident musical theater company at the historic “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, has chosen the musical classic “Gypsy” as their concluding presentation of 2022. Featuring a book by the illustrious Broadway Writer/Director Arthur Laurents, and music by the comparably famed Jule Styne, with lyrics by none other than the legendary Stephen Sondheim, their iconic score contains such Gold-Medal musical theater standards as “Let Me Entertain You”, “Together Wherever We Go”, “Gotta Have A Gimmick”, “Rose’s Turn” and the stirring “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”. This new production is Directed by “One More Productions” Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Damien Lorton (who also serves as Musical Director) with Choreography by Shauna Bradford, Angela Mattern, and Lexi Cross, while Nick Bravo conducts the Orchestra.
To see this particular show at this landmark theater, which celebrates its centennial next year–and itself is said to have been a real burlesque theater “back in the day” (before being converted to a movie theater in the 30’s,) gives the production an added resonance and vivacity. Add to it how over the last year, “The Gem” has been extensively re-modeled to reflect its earlier “Art Deco” style of its incipient years, and it’s no exaggeration to assert that one may even feel a strange sense of glories past from seeing this production. Director Lorton even employs two sultry peroxide-blonde “card girls” (played by Gio Martinez and Iva Erwin) to slink onto the stage between scenes and change the title cards which inform us where the next scene is occurring, (as was the practice in old Vaudeville.) After intermission, they change places with two card boys (Reid Harris and Matthew Rangel.) To top it off, on opening night Lorton made known that “Gypsy” was the very first show he ever directed back in the early 2000’s. Hailed as a “Musical Fable Of Showbusiness” the show is based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (one of the most famous ‘Burlesque” performers of the 20th century.) The story opens in her childhood with her (then billed by her real name, “Louise”) and her sister “Baby June” trying to make a name for themselves in Vaudeville. Trouble is, their overbearing and demanding “Never take no for an answer” mother, “Rose” is as much of a hindrance as a help to them. Determined her kids (or, well, ‘June’ anyway,) has stardom in their future, she stops at nothing to make sure that will happen–even if it means eventually putting her ‘other’ daughter “Louise” on the Burlesque stage (once the children grow beyond ‘Kiddie Talent Shows’ and ‘June” runs off to ‘escape’ her mother’s fanatical influence.) There, plain-Jane, underconfident “Louise” quickly finds her voice and rises to become the re nowned (and in some circles infamous) “Gypsy Rose Lee”. (Bear in mind though, as is accurately represented here, “Gypsy Rose Lee” never really stripped fully–always leaving much strategically covered, making her act, by today’s standards, more ribald than anything truly revealing.)
When all is said and done, “Gypsy” is a story about the world of performing so there are plenty of chances for dance, and viewed from that standpoint, three has decidedly proven to be the magic number, given the diverse talents of the triad of choreographers who have guaranteed the evolving events move to the same elevated extent as they sing! Indeed, these talented ladies also ensured a wide variety of moves and movement to always keep things, lively, exciting, and in a few places even delightfully surprising. Angela Mattern is largely responsible for the big, splashy show-within-a-show numbers like “Baby June And Her Newsboys”, and later, “Dainty June And Her Farm Boys” (after the act has ostensibly been ‘re-worked’ for the now-older performers.) In both cases, not only are Mattern’s efforts fittingly inherent to vintage “Vaudeville”, but they also mine their maximum quotient of laughs making each a genuine knockout! One such instance can be seen in how, for this latter version, “Louise” is disguised as the front end of a cow, (as always playing second fiddle to her sibling, who is now called “Dainty June”.)
Her Co-Choreographer, Lexi Cross seems to have built upon this idea—only bringing it down a little for the smaller, more intimate intermezzos that are so vital in their own right to the show’s success. Case-in-point is her work on the extended “Broadway” section of June’s on-stage “Farm Boys” endeavor, in which the boys, decked in top hats with canes in hand, engage in your standard cross-over steps, slides and leaps in honor of their taking our ‘humble’—now adolescent–gal and starring her in a big league show: “Bright lights, white lights, rhythm and romance,” they collectively croon; “The train is late, so while we wait we’re gonna do a little dance!” In Act Two, Ms. Cross also created some brief-but-buoyant maneuvers for “Together Wherever We Go”—a trio highlighting “Rose”, “Louise” and their long-suffering manager, “Herbie”. Shauna Bradford also devises some memorable interludes—most notably with Chorus Boy (and one of “June’s” back-up dancers) “Tulsa’s” dapper “Fred Astaire” inspired solo, “All I Need Now Is The Girl”. Still other unforgettable choreographic entrees include Act One’s “Mr. Goldstone, We Love You”—as “June” and her mini ensemble serve up an early-morning impromptu ‘serenade’ to an influential talent booker “Herbie” has brought to see them; later, “Madame Rose’s Toreadorables” is a rambunctious (and uproarious) way to launch Act Two, as we find our heroes—now sadly minus “June”–somewhere out in the desert trying (futilely) to concoct an new act for “Louise”—herself now fronting a gaggle of girls with even less talent than she has (The split she attempts at the number’s conclusion will either have you laughing like crazy or wincing with empathetic pain!)
While this may be the origin story of “Gypsy Rose Lee”, as anyone familiar with the show can affirm, it’s her mother who drives all of the action, and leading the cast is Adriana Sanchez (who gives what is arguably among her best, most crowning achievements on “The Gem” stage) as “Mama Rose”.
As she’s confirmed time and again at this theater Ms. Sanchez has a masterful way with a good throw-away line or subtle pun such as “Mama Rose” is tasked with throughout. If that weren’t impressive enough, she instinctively directs her focus inward when imparting some of “Rose’s” many impassioned declarations. In many ways, this is what makes her performance so chillingly on the money. “Rose” is every particle a toxic narcissist—and as such is constantly thinking only of herself and her desires; directing her focus anywhere but inward would be to give others attention (and for those such as she, that would be unthinkable!) Her opening salvo, “Some People” substantiates anew exactly how awesome a performer Sanchez is–and one more than up to the demands of this very complex role. In that its tempo is so fast-paced (facilitating a similarly fast-paced delivery,) it makes this even more intense with the raw resolve Ms. Sanchez infuses into it. (This number also ends with a boisterous flourish, which rapidly elevates it into one of the major crowd-pleasers in Act One.) She quickly follows this up with an every-bit-as-superlative rendition of “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”, which even becomes a pleasant–even poignant–duet when “Herbie” joins in for a few verses (likewise, underscoring its effectiveness is the sweet and soothing piano accompaniment that enhances its sentimentality.) Not to be overlooked either is her involvement in “Together Wherever We Go” (which makes for a fairly up-beat trio, opposite “Louise” and “Herbie”—but have no doubt, “Rose” is the one who’s leading it!) Then again, “Rose” is granted two crucial opportunities to positively blow us away (each, not coincidentally at the end of their respective acts,) and Ms. Sanchez definitely doesn’t disappoint with either of them. The first is the vehement-to-the-point-of-severe, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, which she belts out to the back row with gale-force—as the resolute-beyond-reason ”Rose”, faced with the end of her ambitions for “June” becoming a ‘Star’ doubles down with her determination and grit–suddenly shifting her focus to her ‘less talented’ offspring and everything and everyone else be damned! Then, at the end of the second Act, her fiery (make that Volcanic) final manifesto, “Rose’s Turn”, is about as powerful as any musical can get—the perfect capper to her entire performance (and what a dynamic ride-out with some stunning sustained notes. Wow!) Through it, Sanchez ensures that “Rose’s” pain is palpable—even bordering on despair–as she confronts the realization that she simply isn’t needed anymore. This is also where that we realize just how small and frail this woman “Rose”, in point of fact is: “You say I fought all of my life? I fought all of YOUR LIFE!” she ultimately fumes at “Gypsy”; “So tell me now—What did I do it for?!” “I thought you did it for me,” her daughter replies quietly.
Courtney Hays is also a force to be reckoned with as her daughter who stayed, “Louise” (later “Gypsy”.) One of the more remarkable aspects to her performance lies in how nuanced it is. Wise beyond her years without a hard edge. In lesser hands, “Louise’s” outward compliance with her mother’s constant emotional barrages could come off as weakness or passivity. Instead, Ms. Hays gives us a young lady who, on the face of it, may appear to be resigned to always being shoved into the background, while offering perceptive viewers plenty of hints that in reality, this ‘resignation’ is her inner-strength and resilience. Rest assured that by Act Two it becomes only too apparent that “Louise” is the quiet voice of common-sense for all of those around her. She also has a strong vocal ability she can proudly lay claim to which she puts to excellent use with “Louise’s” touching soliloquy-solo “Little Lamb” (sung on the occasion of her birthday which has been overlooked by sudden news of an especially fortuitous booking for the act, thus pushing her once again back into the shadows.) Just as worthy are her contributions to the duet “If Mama Was Married” (sung alongside “June”) and her stanzas in “Together Wherever We Go”, before “Gypsy” at last takes centerstage with her “Let Me Entertain You” montage, displaying her assent up through the ranks and into “Burlesque” super-stardom. “Say, you can do the ‘Let Me Entertainment’ number,” Rose enthuses as she prepares for “Rose Louise” to perform on the burlesque stage for the very first time. Director Lorton has shrewdly staged the number with equal parts anticipation and antipathy—aware that we’ve rooted for this girl right from the start, and even if she will eventually prevail, this initial, unsure phase toward her subsequent success is a bit jarring. (Look closely and you notice that “Louise” is actually crying as she hurriedly prepares for her ‘debut’ into the ‘star’ strip. It’s a powerful moment any way you look at it.)
Jon Michell too, supplies plenty of fine support as “Herbie”—Rose’s would-be “love interest” and her daughters’ forever malleable, tolerant-to-a-fault Manager. Michell paints “Herbie” as more of an affable, trying-to-stay-laid-back, everyman—charging his portrayal with a nice relatability which contrasts Rose’s relentlessly over-the-top personality exceptionally well. What verses he is afforded in “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” or “Together Wherever We Go” he mostly talk-sings, but this is entirely suitable to the kind of low-key persona Michell is trying to depict.
No less noteworthy too, is Matthew Rangel—another recognizable talent in recent times for “One More Productions”, who also shines in the featured role of “Tulsa’—one of “June’s” bevy of chorus boys. His spirited divertimento, “All I Need now Is The Girl” is a rousing roof-raiser and is a good showcase for this talented performer. Fashioned as an intriguing Tap Dance-Waltz hybrid, he successfully carries out a line of pristine pirouettes and an awesome arabesque right before the ‘Big Finish”–at which time he is joined by “Louise” (whom you can tell secretly wishes she could be the self-same dream partner he’s singing about.) Count this one of the productions’ true musical jewels just prior to the close of Act One. As “the biggest little headline in Vaudeville”: “Baby June”, young Erica Gonzales scenes may be relegated to the show’s earliest, but she makes a solid impression—dazzling with some incredible high kicks, cartwheels and even the splits! She too is in possession of a formidable vocal talent which she verifies in the opening, “May We Entertain You”. Right by her side is Kylie Stewart who also demonstrates great likeability along with an identically sensational singing talent as “June’s” sister and “show-biz” co-star/assistant, “Baby Louise”. And then of course, there are the ‘strippers’ whom “Louise” and company encounter at the faded opera-house in Wichita Kansas that now operates as a glorified strip club. They are: Julia Iacopetti as “Tessie Tura”–a ‘never-was’ ballerina who dances around in a wispy ‘Butterfly’ get-up, Alexandra Kyte as “Miss Mazzepa”—a brassy trumpet player clad in an oversized suit of Roman “armor”, and Cassidy Love as the aptly named “Electra”, who is done up like a fully-electrified Christmas Tree–portions of which she ‘lights up’ during her act. (‘I’m electrifyin’ and I ain’t even tryin’,” she warbles.) Their “Gotta Get A Gimmick” (and the sheer, sincere absurdity they invest into it) isn’t merely performed brilliantly by all three, it easily rates as the Act Two showstopper! Special props also go out to “Peanut” the one-year-old Chihuahua as “Chowsie” (short for “Chow Mein”) “Rose’s” ever patient dog and constant companion, who adds even more geniality to the goings-on.
The Scenic Design by Amanda Stuart establishes the whole ‘feel’ for the show, favoring a kind of old-school showbiz ‘born in a trunk’ attitude that may at times be more on the representational side but is nonetheless very effective in recalling the mood of Vaudeville in its waning years. She also dresses up the proscenium arch with lights framing the edges, while adding the two forementioned “title card” frames on either side of the stage.
Beyond this general set-dressing that has us viewing the proceedings through their most important location—a theater stage, she keeps most of the set pieces small and minimal—again pointing towards the fleeting impermanence that was part-and-parcel of a life of constantly touring from town to town, theater to theater. Jon Hyrkas’ lighting also plays a significant role in the story’s progression, as Lorton has thematically divided much of the story into what is supposedly ‘real life’ as opposed to (and expressly separate from) the gaudier and more ‘glamorous’ ‘on-stage life’. Over and above setting the ‘heightened reality’ of the musical numbers at the forefront of the stage, those transpiring in ‘daily life’ are set farther upstage. These distinctions are also indicated by a change of light (–softer for the ‘everyday’ segments of the character’s lives, and more vivid and strident for the more garish ones set “before the footlights”.) Yet its Kari Setlak’s imaginative costume designs that honestly must be seen to be believed (–and does this this show ever boast a phenomenal amount of costumes!) Take for example “Electra’s” eye-popping, light-up ‘apparel’ (—complete with preposterously over-sized headpiece) which ‘illuminates’ various areas of her ‘outfit’ at different times in the midst of her…ahem…’exhibition’ (This very well might be worth the price of admission alone!) Complementing all of these are the snazzy wig and make-up designs by Alan Collins and Brian Bolanos respectively. Each go a long way in conjuring the sometimes classy, sometimes trashy illusion of the late 1920’s—1930’s, the era wherein the story unfolds.
“A barrel of fun, a fabulous thrill”—or, to paraphrase a line from one of the score’s most famous inclusions: “Let them entertain you—let them make you smile; by the time they’re through entertaining you, you’ll have a real good time” –this absolutely is the production to do it with! Having opened on November 26th, “Gypsy” will play through December 18th, 2022; Performance times are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM (–on Saturday, December 3rd and December 10th, showtimes are at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM) at “The Gem Theatre”, located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, CA. In addition, specially priced “Student Rush Tickets” are available for purchase 30 minutes before curtain, in person at the box office with a valid Student ID (cash only) for Thursday and Friday performances. For more information or to purchase tickets, call “One More Productions” at (714) 741-9550, ext. 225, or visit their website at: www.theGemOC.com .
Production Photos by Ron Lyon www.ronlyonphoto.com Courtesy of “One More Productions” www.theGEMoc.com Special Thanks to Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Dan Baird, Kara Dillard, Shoko Araki, Ron Lyon and to the cast and crew of “One More Productions” 2022 Presentation of “Gypsy” for making this story possible.