Gypsy, that Styne and Sondheim classic musical about the chestnut-haired stripper who rose from the gutters of small-town vaudeville to become an international burlesque star, is a fine old warhorse of a show. It makes for big rowdy theater that glitters with brassy, unforgettable tunes, old-style top-hat tap dancing, bawdy jokes and a coming-of-age story made for the stage. But without a full orchestra, a multitalented cast and a chorus of quality dancers, the show comes off as a rickety antique.
Such is the case with Masquerade Theatre's Gypsy. Though director Troy Menn's effort is valiant and many members of the young cast are obviously talented, the majestic show simply overtaxes the little theater's resources.
Masquerade has no orchestra, not even a band, only an electric-sounding piano with loungelike notes that float out from somewhere behind the curtains. This minimalism might be fine when child vaudeville performer Baby June (Aznive Korkejian) sings "Let Me Entertain You" in her (intentionally) squeaky voice. But that lone piano does nothing for the same song when the grown and sexy stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Rebecca Smith) struts out to purr the song as she wiggles out of her sequined dress. Strippers need drums and horns and lots of musical torque that a little piano can't provide. And, of course, there are mother Rose's famously classic songs. Imagine "Everything's Coming Up Roses," or "Some People," or even the heart-twisting finale, "Rose's Turn," without an orchestra. The effect is especially sad given that Joanne Bonasso, as Rose, illuminates the stage with big-fisted energy and talent, even if she is 20 years too young to play this grand dame.
Many of the principals are talented, though they don't fit comfortably into their roles. Smith's Louise has a sweet and lyrical voice and is utterly believable as the stringy-haired daughter who can never please Mama Rose. But Smith doesn't ripen into the sultry star when she makes herself over into Gypsy Rose Lee. On the other hand, the exotic Johanna Beth Harris seems out of place in the bubbly role of the teenage Baby June, Mama Rose's favorite child. It's a shame to see this languid, long-limbed actress so woefully miscast. To make matters worse, the show has no real choreography or dancers. Instead, the audience must sit through several scenes of awkward performers marching and stomping and shuffling en masse as they attempt to do something that looks like dance but is nothing more than a series of bad drill-team routines. The performers try their best and seem hardly to blame for this mess.
Masquerade Theatre is not equipped to do a full-scale, old-fashioned production of Gypsy (there aren't many small theaters in town that are). Masquerade always manages to find talented performers, but it's a shame to to waste them on an ill-conceived effort that is doomed to failure.
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Gypsy runs through August 7 at Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd, (713) 861-7045. $12-$20.