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There’s so much to like about Cygnet Theatre’s production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable that I’m almost tempted to give it an unqualified rave.

Almost.

Allison Spratt Pearce with Lauren King Thompson, Katie Whalley Banville and Bailey Sonner Photo by Ken Jacques

Allison Spratt Pearce with Lauren King Thompson, Katie Whalley Banville and Bailey Sonner
Photos by Ken Jacques

To the strengths first: this is a Gypsy that is smartly designed and directed for Cygnet’s Old Town space. Sean Fanning’s set creates a proscenium frame with an elegant red curtain that allows the performers to use the space in front for performance while keeping the rear area for set pieces or even a gauzy backstage space from which “Mama” Rose, the ultimate monster stage mother (Linda Libby), can watch nervously as her charges go through their paces. Chris Rynne’s lighting design helps to distinguish between the magic of the theatre and the often-seedy behind-the-scenes action. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are a marvel – and not just because there are so many of them (wigs, too – credit the redoubtable Peter Herman for those). Dylan Nielsen’s sound design is necessarily complicated with such a large cast and a need to balance singers with an off-stage six-piece band (expertly music directed by Terry O’Donnell). It’s a big show and it looks it. On the other hand, it never lumbers (credit stage manager Ryan James Heath for making three hours fly by).

Director Sean Murray seems to have decided that a straight-ahead approach is the best method to climb this musical mountain. And, he’s probably correct: with a cast of 24 (19 of whom perform each night, as five roles for children are double-cast) he’s got his hands full. There’s virtually no “rethinking” on display. It’s nearly enough to keep the story moving from venue to venue as Rose and her brood crisscross the country moving from one vaudeville circuit to another – until that fateful day when vaudeville gives out and they’ve landed in a fourth-rate burlesque house. Desperation gives rise to Louise’s (Allison Spratt Pearce) transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee, a performer who emphasized the “tease” in striptease.

Mr. Murray has cast the show adeptly, and all of his performers are able to, at a minimum, provide unique characterizations that distinguish them from other cast members. Many do much better than that, and chief among those is Ms. Pearce. As the adult Louise, she suffers through the indignities of being regarded by her mother as the “untalented one,” even though she anchors the vaudeville acts so that her sister, June (Katie Whalley Banville), can shine as the star. Watching Ms. Pearce provides a lesson in masterful characterization, not only in how she handles her mother’s bullying and neglect but in how she refuses to turn the tables when she becomes a star in her own right. She’s an absolute pro and this production owes much of its gleam to her presence.

For her part, Ms. Banville, who is known primarily as a dancer, manages between dance moves to project June’s eventual frustration with not becoming the star her mother has promised. June turns to Tulsa (Danny Hansen), one of the chorus boys, and the two not only play against each other well as dancers (to David Brannen’s choreography) but also as romantic partners.

Manny Fernandes, Linda Libby, and Allison Spratt Pearce

Manny Fernandes, Linda Libby, and Allison Spratt Pearce

The final crucial component of Rose’s traveling troupe is Herbie (Manny Fernandes), who signs on as its agent but who also dreams of marrying Rose and settling down. Herbie is often played as a doormat, but Mr. Fernandes makes him a man who knows both his strengths and his weaknesses and who plays to his strengths, at least most of the time. It’s a refreshingly effective approach to the role.

Which brings me to the “almost,” which I regret to say is Rose herself. I’ve admired Ms. Libby’s work on many occasions. She shines at playing big, brassy, characters with pizzazz, and she’s played Rose only a while ago, in ion Theatre’s production of Gypsy. I’m hoping that it was the performance I saw, but Ms. Libby was struggling the whole evening. Her singing voice wasn’t clicking into place, and she was resorting to belting, which caused pitch problems. Her Rose came across as pushy and obnoxious from the beginning, and there wasn’t a lot of growth or change as the performance went forward. Ms. Pearce and Mr. Fernandes were able to move the needle somewhat in their scenes with her, and she had enough energy to bellow her way through the big eleven o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn.” But it wasn’t pretty. I’m hoping that what I saw was the result of illness or a bad night, as Ms. Libby is capable of doing brilliant work.

There’s a lot of talent on the Cygnet stage right now (including David Kirk Grant as a succession of producers and Marlene Montes, Kendra Truett, and Marci Anne Weubben, who have a ball with the second act’s “You Gotta Get A Gimmick”). If everything falls together this Arthur Laurents/Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne collaboration should play in concert with its reputation as one of the greatest musicals ever written.

[box]Performs through Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 7pm. Matinees are Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 2pm. Arrive early. Old Town parking is, for the most part, free but is often difficult to find. The performance runs nearly three hours, including one intermission. This review was based on the performance of Thursday, July 28.

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Photo of Cygnet Theatre
Cygnet Theatre
Work Old Town Theatre 4040 Twiggs St. San Diego CA 92110 Work Phone: (619) 337-1525 Website: Cygnet Theatre website
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Bill Eadie

Bill Eadie

In addition to reviewing theatre for San Diego Story, Bill also reviews for TalkinBroadway.com. He is a member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association. Bill is an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University.

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