R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - GYPSY with Arielle Brousse | Theatre Philadelphia
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R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - GYPSY with Arielle Brousse

Jun 1, 2017


Meet Arielle Brousse. This is her profile photo on Twitter. 

We are bonding over the horror of theater. Leaving Arden Theatre Company’s eye-popping production of Gypsy, we are prompted to reminisce about times that, like the showbiz strivers in the classic musical, we had our dreams of on-stage adulation dashed. For my fifth Theater Date, a series in which I take Philebrities to shows and report back about what we talked about, I’m headed to Old City with Arielle Brousse, assistant director for development at Kelly Writer’s House in University City. We’ve spent the evening watching ultimate stage mom, Rose, try to cajole a series of producers into making her daughter, June, a star. We’ve watched the common cycle of audition and rejection over and over again. We are traumatized. Arielle tells me the story of losing out on the part of Miss Hannigan in a school production of Annie. It brings tears of sympathy to my eyes. I tell her how an ill-timed cold cost me the Major General role in Pirates of Penzance in 8th grade. It’s like Rose says: you either have it or you’ve had it. We weep for what could have been.


Rachel Camp in Gypsy

 

Gypsy is such an interesting musical because for all of its thrilling dance numbers, its eminently hummable score and its showy roles, at its heart its, a cautionary tale. At least that’s the thing that stays with us after the last exposed light bulb on James Krozner’s stunning set has dimmed. It stands out to me, in a way that it hasn’t before, how grueling and unkind the vaudeville circuit was. Arielle draws parallels between Rose’s stage parenting and a friend who grew up in the “Toddlers and Tiaras”-esque pageant world. For all the bright lights and lollipops, it’s the darkness and the sourness that we can’t shake.

 

It’s no surprise, then, that we first see Rose (Mary Martello) bursting through a darkened doorway silhouetted by foggy light. It calls to mind a character fleeing a monster on film, or perhaps the sudden appearance of the monster herself. There are many times throughout the performance that I find myself mesmerized by the way Thom Weaver’s lighting design pulls eerie shadows out of the faces of Rose’s daughters, played as adults by Rachel Camp and Caroline Dooner. Gypsy, for us hardened veterans of the middle school theater circuit, is as much as seminal classic of the American theater as it is a chilling horror masterpiece.

 

That’s particularly clear in the number “Dainty June and Her Farmboys,” which features Camp as June squealing, spinning, cartwheeling and cantering while Dooner as Louise does a soft-shoe as the front half of a very expressive cow. It’s embarrassing how much we enjoy it. At one point I think I actually screamed with glee. At intermission, the person next to me turned to me and said “You loved that cow number!” I told her, “I apologize and you’re welcome.”

 


Mary Martello as Mama Rose in Gypsy

Later, Arielle and I reflect on that scene in particular. In the context of the play, it marks a point of almost absurd desperation for Rose and her daughters. The girls are clearly in their 20s and yet still pretending to be adorable pre-teens. Rose has reconceived a number that was twee but acceptable in its original form and produced something that’s craven and grotesque and could really use a dramaturg. It’s a low point for the characters and yet the musical dares us to love it. Arielle remarks at how hard Camp and the ensemble sell the number (Malik Akil, Ray Aguilar, Andrew Betz and Jordan Dobson play the farmboys). It occurs to us that so many scenes in this piece are calibrated to compel us to love them against our better judgment.

 

How else to make sense of the one-two punch of the show’s closing songs? In “Let Me Entertain You” we watch wallflower Louise transform into burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, gaining confidence and self-actualizing even as she cedes a piece of her dreams. And then in “Rose’s Turn,” Sondheim and Styne turn a heartbreaking mental breakdown into a rousing 11 o’clock number. When done right, as it is in Terrence Nolen’s production, it both chills and delights.

 

Before the performance, Arielle asked me if I was a musical theater person. I responded “Hard yes” before she’d even finished the question. She replied that she wasn’t as easily beguiled. What criteria marks a worthwhile musical for her? “Usually it has to make me cry,” she said. Afterward I ask her if Gypsy, which she’d never seen before, met her criteria. She replies, “Yes.”

Gypsy, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed Terrence J. Nolen, is produced by Arden Theatre Company. It opened on May 22 and run through June 25. Find tickets and more information at ardentheatre.org

R. Eric Thomas is an award-winning playwright and humorist. His most recent play, Time Is On Our Side, was the recipient of two Barrymore Awards including Best New Play and was named a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. He writes a daily humor column for ELLE.com in which he “reads” the news. In addition to ELLE.com and ELLE magazine, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, W, Man Repeller, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine and more. rericthomas.com