Arden’s ‘Gypsy’ begins with homage to its 1959 Philadelphia try-out

Mary Martello as Mama Rose in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Gypsy.

Mary Martello as Mama Rose in Arden Theatre Company’s production of “Gypsy.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

By Margaret Darby

In 1959, the new musical Gypsy, based on a play by Arthur Laurents, had a ten-day tryout in Philadelphia. Fred Anton, honorary producer of this season’s production of Gypsy at the Arden Theatre, told the opening night audience that he had been lucky enough to be in attendance.

\Director Terrence J. Nolan managed to reflect a lot of the original production, and doffed his hat to Jerome Robbins’ choreography by using a pantomime during the overture – with Mama Rose miming to Baby June and Baby Louise and jugglers, musicians, and acrobats.  The pantomime, along with a big Christmas show at Minsky’s, were some of the many ideas that were rejected as the original productions was being honed for the Broadway run.

The set (James Krozner) and lighting (Thom Weaver) for the Arden production were visually stunning. No walls, but three levels of cages for the musicians on either side of the stage with vivid marquis lighting over the entire set.  However, what was stunning visually must have been rather difficult for the sound as the musicians had no eye contact with each other or with the singers and they were spaced too far apart to hear each other. This created some tuning and cue problems. The best coordination of cast and orchestra was during the outrageous performances by the strippers in You gotta get a gimmick, where Mazeppa’s (Joliet F. Harris) trumpet playing on stage was pretty convincing.

Joilet F. Harris as Mazeppa in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Gypsy.

Joilet F. Harris as Mazeppa. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The choreography by Jenn Rose is outstanding and she made use of her cast of extremely gifted kids. Baby June (Alexa Hunt) is a superb dancer – fearless as she cartwheels and leaps all around the stage and her fellow newsboys, Abigail Brown, Avery Hannon, and Ethan Jih-Cook have their routines so securely learned that they smile and move freely but executing every step with confident precision. Baby June has the perkiness of a Shirley Temple blended with a stage-weary tolerance of her unrelenting mother.

The most stunning dance of the show is Tulsa’s (Malik Akil) All I need is the girl.  Jerome Robbins actually created this dance for Tulsa to do alone because in the original production no one in the cast could have kept up as Tulsa’s partner. In this production, (older) Louise joined him briefly in the end of his number and had no problem keeping up. With the formidable song and dance skills of Dainty June (Rachel Camp), it is a shame she could not have been choreographed into the number as well.

Mama Rose (Mary Martello) has surprising skills in both dance and singing but is a lot more Joan Baez than Ethel Merman.  Her role as the fierce and overly controlling stage mother is painted with a paler brush, too, which made her reactions more subtle. Her quiet refusal to cry or even show emotion when June abandoned her was exactly what Arthur Laurents wanted. Mary Martello’s Rose has a nuanced crescendo which climaxes in her final number, Rose’s Turn, when she realizes exactly why and how she failed in her quest for fame.

Her sidekick, Herbie (Anthony Heald) is the weakest link in the show.  He is no singer and he did not convey his desperate love for Rose nor the crushing disappointment when he realizes he will never change her.

Costume designer Richard St. Clair managed to recreate the era and the glitz of Baby and Dainty June, while keeping Baby Louise in sexless, drab boy clothes. Baby Louise’s Dutch bowl haircut is symbolic of her repressed life and when (teen) Louise sings Little Lamb with Baby Louise, the hair styles mirror each other.  When Louise finally comes on stage for her first striptease, the Dutch boy haircut is pinned up to make her look like Audrey Hepburn and her lush figure, which the costumes managed to hide until this point, is on full display in brilliant silky pink.

To enjoy The Arden’s version of Gypsy, leave Ethel Merman at home on your shelf of LP records and be open to a more dramatic musical than the one seen in this city in 1959.  As Arthur Laurents, who directed the musical more than once, said in his book Mainly on Directing, “Every production is ipso facto going to be different from every other because a different actress is going to be playing Rose, and the production takes its character from her.” He also said, “Merman was a Roman-candle star who knew how to strut on stage and perform, but not how to act.”  Mary Martello definitely knows how to act.

Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. May 18-June 25, 2017.  Tickets: $36-$50 for adults, discounts for seniors, students, educators. Call 215.922.1122 or ardentheatre.org.