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Theater Review: "Gypsy"

Allison Spratt Pearce and Linda Libby in "Gypsy."
Photo credit:
Ken Jacques

I had never seen the musical “Gypsy” in any way, shape or form, but I did know that it was about a rather sad and controlling stage mother who takes her troupe of kids across the United States in the age of Vaudeville in search of fame and fortune before it disappeared forever.

I knew that Rosaland Russel played the lead in the 1962 film and Bette Midler in the 1993 television version, beyond that I knew nothing else. 

“Gypsy” is a musical based on the real life memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a popular strip tease artist who became a star based on her unique style of the art in the 1930's and 40's.

Although I would imagine the title has a double-meaning; one that describes the mother's vagabond nature, and the moniker her daughter would eventually adopt as a stage name.

I say this because even though the musical is based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, the focus is mostly on mother Rose for good portion of this comedy/drama musical. 

The Cygnet Theatre in Old Town San Diego has brought the Stephen Sondheim musical to their stage until September 4, and it is well worth the price of admission to see such a wonderful musical in this intimate historic venue.

Seasoned actress and San Diego stage celebrity Linda Libby takes on the lead role as Rose the aforementioned mother who, in the beginning, thinks that her daughter “Baby June” has what it takes to make it big on stage during the 1920’s.

June and other daughter, diffident Louise, are strong-armed by Rose - tied to her puppeteering apron-strings - and her quest for the spotlight.

Libby commands the stage from her in-audience entrance to the closing number. Her performance has a wow factor that never loses steam whether it be singing the inspirational “Some People” to the emotional “Rose’s Turn,’ a song which digs deep into both the artist’s musical range and her character’s propitiation.

But just as Rose is going through the vicissitude of depression-era showbiz, her children, both her own and those in her acquired company are held figuratively captive, never allowed to grow beyond the age of nine-years-old.

Again, I found it interesting that this musical is based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s life, but a lot of time in the First Act is devoted to Mama Rose and “Baby June.”

June is first played by the talented youngster Gabriella Dimmick, somewhat of a quadruple threat; she can sing, dance, charm and twirl two batons while doing the splits.

Dimmick, and all the children in Act One are skilled enough to immerse the audience into feeling they are a part of the play through organic applause. 

In one ingenious choreographed passing-time effect, Director Sean Murray, Choreographer David Brannen and lighting designer Chris Rynne seemed to be in perfect harmony as the younger players dance off stage, magically reappearing as their older selves seconds later.

It’s in this maturity that we really begin to see how Louise -soon to become Gypsy – fits into the marquee.

This is when Allison Spratt Pearce, playing Louise, has her chance to upstage the extremely talented Libby, but it’s all even-keel as these two performers play against each other in theatrical harmony.

Cygnet staple Danny Hansen plays the older troupe member “Tulsa” and makes mincemeat of the stage with “All I Need is The Girl.”

“Gypsy” has a sparse set design, the use of Edison lighting and the ever-present backstage backdrop brings a strange pall over the stage, but that may have been what Scenic Designer Sean Fanning was trying to achieve in this depression-era piece.

Colors really begin to pop during Rose and Gypsy's né Louise’s accidental booking at a Wichita Kansas burlesque house, they meet three female strippers who nearly brought the house to their feet during their performance of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

“Gypsy” is a little piece of perfection. It's comfort food at the Cygnet where audience members become a part of the scenery.

The ugly duckling storyline has a sweet reveal and the theatrical and emotional journeys of the two main characters is a timeless fable of redemption brought to life by two powerful performances. 

The details

“Gypsy” plays through September 4, 2016 at the Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. San Diego, CA 92110 

Showtimes are: Wednesdays 7:30 pm; Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8pm; Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm. 

Tickets available HERE.