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Theater review: Let Larry Keeton Theatre Entertain You with Powerful ‘Gypsy’ Performances

Gypsy 2Larry Keeton Theatre’s production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable sports some great performances of material that’s stood the test of time. Whether you’ve seen the 1959 musical masterpiece with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents or not you should see their version before the run ends April 27.

Why? Well, there’s more than one reason, but Ginger Newman as Rose should be enough for any discerning theater lover. I’m happily biased – ever since I saw her at Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Pirates of Penzance, Evita and other roles some years ago I’ve been absolutely in awe of her talents. And why should I (or anyone else who’s seen her perform) be less than awed by someone with an incredible voice and finely honed acting skills? That she takes the iconic part played by such luminaries as Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell (who was Rose in the 1962 film version opposite Natalie Wood as Louise), Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler (in a 1993 TV version), Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone and makes it her own is no surprise.

Those unfamiliar with the show should know that it is loosely based on the 1957 “Gypsy: A Memoir” by burlesque striptease star Gypsy Rose Lee (though this production is hardly one the kids can’t handle due to careful staging by director/choreographer Jamie London). And while the inspiration and title come from her, they should also know that’s its Gypsy’s mother Rose that takes center stage.

That’s why the climactic “Rose’s Turn” is so important – it sums up the feelings and frustrations of the ultimate stage mother who really wanted all the footlights fame for herself. Rose does and says some things one might consider monstrous, but she’s not a monster, just a very flawed human being who has been shaped by a very tough life. Understanding and conveying that is no easy feat, but Newman does with a commanding voice that cuts through the air like a knife from “Some People” forward and a presence that brings all eyes to her from the moment she appears onstage. She conveys tender and reflective as well as she projects angry and defiant; Newman’s Rose is full-blown, multi-hued life. While I think it’s silly to say someone was “born” to play a role, there’s no question that the performer I’ve known and admired for many years fits this part as if it was written for her.

No less appealing is Christina Candilora as Louise. She handles the character arc of Louise beautifully, from sweet teen in Act I’s “Little Lamb” the confident adult performer by the end of Act II’s “Let Me Entertain You” striptease reprise. You can teach many things, but you can’t teach talent or presence; one just has those qualities. Candilora has plenty of both to go along with a lovely singing voice and the rare but essential tool found in every fine actor’s kit – the ability to listen and watch other actors and find genuine reactions for their characters based on what their colleagues are saying and doing. When Rose obsessively decides it’s time for Louise to be a star in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” the shock and pain that crosses Louise’s face before she cries while Herbie (Terry McLemore) holds her is clearly born out of being connected to the moment and what’s going on around her. I look forward to the privilege of watching Candilora in future roles.

And McLemore brings his sublime veteran’s touch to the gentle man who put up with Rose for far longer than he should have. While I can see a good bit of the actor in this performance – McLemore and Herbie are both kind, sensitive souls who make the world a bit brighter – that doesn’t mean that no acting is going on; McLemore is a very talented and experienced performer who knows how to hide the work and create the theatrical reality of his character, in addition to having an easy-on-the-ear singing voice that works so well with Newman on “Small World” and with Candilora and Newman on “Together, Wherever We Go.” It’s a real pleasure to see him on stage, and perfect casting by London as well.

Some other standouts include Virginia Richardson and Stella London as June at different ages; Emily Ann Cowart as the smarter-than-she-looks stripper Electra; Cade Smith as Tulsa, who does a nice job with “All I Need is the Girl” number with Candilora; and Bobby Milford in a variety of roles. A special shout-out to producer and costumer Jane Schnelle, who in addition to her other duties had to replace an actor in the role of the stripper Mazeppa; Schnelle proves to be a real trooper in a fun rendition of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” with Cowart and Monykah Tyson as fellow stripper Tessie Tura.

I did wonder about the pacing of this production when I saw it opening night. Shows of that era were generally paced more deliberately than they are today; for one thing, people’s attention spans were generally longer (or so I’ve been told by those with long enough memories). Maybe that’s why the proceedings seemed slow to me at times, or maybe things should have moved faster anyway – I still haven’t made up my mind about that, so I’ll give London and her cohorts the benefit of the doubt on that element.

Gypsy 1London’s “in the style of Jerome Robbins” choreography is lively and smile-inducing; Emily Rodriguez’s set is a makeshift affair that coupled with her lights gives the show just the right feeling of almost-but-not-quite that dogged Rose her entire life; and Schnelle’s costumes are colorful delights. Newman is the show’s musical director, and in addition to the fine voices she oversees there are good musicians that include Bob Bowers, Ed Greene, Bob Marinelli and John Todd.

So for the reasons I’ve set out let Larry Keeton Theatre entertain you with their Gypsy. I’m confident, to carry on the lyrical reference, that you’ll have a real good time.

Gypsy continues through April 27 at The Larry Keeton Theatre (108 Donelson Pk.). Shows are 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays with a delicious three-course meal served beginning one hour before shows; call (615) 883-8375 or visit www.thelarrykeetontheatre.org for more information and tickets [$12/ticket (Thursday),  $27/dinner & show or $22/ticket only (Friday-Sunday)].

*Photos by Stephanie Rose for Hi5 Creative of Ginger Newman as Rose courtesy Larry Keeton Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).