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“Gypsy,” playing through March 17 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, is a story about life in show business, but even more is a story of family relationships.
Cathy Mundy plays Rose, a mother who, after a series of failed marriages, has devoted her life to turning her two daughters, first June and then Louise, into show business stars. The show is driven in part by the ambiguity of this strong character: on the one hand, she is admirable for her drive and strength of will, even in the darkest of times. Yet this strength is also her weakness, as it also causes her and her daughters to miss a variety of great opportunities, both personal and professional; for example, she remains committed to vaudeville show styles even when the world has clearly moved on. This makes her and her daughters’ hard road to success even harder, and also alienates Rose’s good-hearted agent and love-interest, Herbie.
Mundy is a force of nature as the multifaceted Rose. Mundy compellingly embodies the character with her many sides: resourceful, cunning, amoral, monomaniacal, mothering, smothering, resilient and indomitable. Her Rose is sometimes winsome and often difficult, but always understandable.
Even more remarkably, she is also able to convey this through her song numbers. Mundy/Rose’s duet with Herbie (David Bosley Reynolds) simultaneously conveys Rose’s flirtatiousness, and also her drive and dominance. Similarly, Mundy belts out one of the show’s signature song “Everything is Coming Up Roses” in a way that is exalted, yet also defiant and perhaps slightly self-deluded, as with its lyrics of “Curtain up! Light the lights! You got nothing to hit but the heights!” Reynolds, for his part, does excellent work portraying Herbie’s devotion to Rose, her daughters, and the rest of the acting troop in both song and action.
Two sets of actresses portray the two daughters. Baby June and Baby Louise are the younger versions, and the night this this reviewer attended they were respectively played by Nina Brothers and Maddie Ellinghaus. Brothers did an outstanding job of portraying the mannerisms and singing voice of an even younger child; she and Ellinghaus also executed their song “Let Me Entertain You” flawlessly. Brothers, Ellinghaus and their accompanying dancers (Cooper Trump, Jackson Smith and Hannah Dash) portrayed wonderfully the often-patriotic vaudeville style song-and-dance from a bygone era.
Louisa Tringali and MaryKate Brouillet play the older versions of the daughters, “Dainty June” and Louise. Tringali does an excellent job as Dainty June, who had grown into a youth of obvious talent but who is frustrated with a mother with unrealistic expectations and appalling taste in show material.
Brouillet is Louise – a challenging task. Given that it is she who must show the evolution of the character from shy and supposedly untalented youth to burlesque star. This she does well, both in terms of acting and song. Her solo “Little Lamb,” fairly early in the show, has a bell-like quality, filled with innocence and longing. The innocence is maintained until circumstances suddenly thrust her onto the burlesque stage, beginning her transformation into the personage Gypsy Rose Lee. Broiuillet accomplishes this convincingly.
“Gypsy” might be classed as a “dramedy” – it contains ebullient music and much humor, but also elements of darkness. Toby’s production, co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick and choreographed by Mark Minnick, interweaves these two elements superbly.
The musical score, conducted by Ross Scott Rawlings the night this reviewer attended, is performed by a live band, with a brassy sound and a feel for jazz in numbers such as “All I Need is the Girl,” danced with spirit and grace by Shiloh Orr. Comedy pervades many scenes, but especially in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” which is at once hilarious and bawdy with the antics of burlesque performers Tessie Tura (played by Elizabeth Rayca), Mazeppa (Tina Marie De Simone) and Electra (Heather Beck).
What will be the audience hook for the future Gypsy Rose Lee? It turns out not to be the light-up costuming or gaudy outfits used by the other performers, but instead Lee’s incorporation of relative restraint, ladylike sophistication, and wit into the striptease routine. Stage lighting is also used to great effect, creating both atmosphere and mood.
This production of “Gypsy” is simultaneously a classic musical, a study in relationships and homage to vaudeville Americana and the evolution of American popular culture. Toby’s has once again produced a wonderfully compelling theatre-in-the-round experience, with just enough essential props to place the audience on the side of the burlesque walkway with Gypsy Rose Lee.
“Gypsy” runs through March 17, 2019, at Toby’s Dinner & Show, located at 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. Running time is about 2 hours 45 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission. The show contains adult-themed content. For more information see https://tobysdinnertheatre.com.