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GYPSY! at MusicalFare brings strong cast to “showbiz” musical

12gfarfqTHE BASICS:  GYPSY, with songs by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Chris Kelly, features, in alphabetical order, Jonas Barranca, Allison Barsi, Charmagne Chi, Doug Crane, Arianne Davidow, Maria Droz, Jordan Louis Fischer, John Fredo, Sabrina Kahwaty, Marina Laurendi, Loraine O’Donnell, Michele Marie Roberts, Dan Urtz, and Faith Walh. It’s up through October 9, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 & 7:30, Sundays at 2. Note: for Curtain Up! (September 16) all shows in WNY are at 8 p.m. MusicalFare Theatre, on the Daemen College Campus is located at 4380 Main St., Amherst (839-8540) but you will do better entering off Getzville Road. Run time 2 hrs. 40 min. including one 20-minute intermission. Full service bar, but no coffee or snacks.

1gafawrfqfrTHUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Mama Rose (Loraine O’Donnell), the ultimate stage mother from hell, relentlessly pushes her younger daughter June (first Faith Wahl as “Baby June,” then Arianne Davidow as adult June) and a young troupe hired to support her, from town to town, on various vaudeville circuits. One by one, Rose’s gaggle of dancers, then June, and then her boyfriend/fiancé Herbie (John Fredo) leave her. Desperate, she focuses on the only one left, Louise, (Marina Laurendi), her older, somewhat gawky daughter to take June’s place. Things seem to go from bad to worse when, in desperation, Louise agrees to strip in a burlesque house. We watch with amazement as “the ugly duckling” turns into a swan. Louise becomes the famous “Gypsy Rose Lee” the woman who put the “tease” in “striptease.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: GYPSY is what is called a “book musical” in that the lyrics (Sondheim), songs (Styne), and “book” (the story line, dramatic arc, character development, spoken dialog, and stage directions) by Arthur Laurents are fully integrated. Everything works towards telling the story, and those stories are not always bubbly.  

Without a doubt, Marina Laurendi (a Niagara University graduate making her MusicalFare debut) owns the title role. She has the looks, the voice, the poise, and the acting chops to make a believable transformation from shy, forgotten Louise, to the famous Gypsy Rose Lee.

Without a doubt, Marina Laurendi (a Niagara University graduate making her MusicalFare debut) owns the title role.

Also outstanding was the irrepressible Charmagne Chi as Tessie, one of a trio of strippers who attempt to show Louise the ropes and who provided some much needed humor in this sometimes very sorrowful story. The dreary life on the road of vaudevillians, especially as Mama Rose’s behavior drives away everyone who loves her, is sad. So, it’s great that when Charmagne reaches for the brass ring, she grabs it.

This production assembles other Western New York favorites. Doug Crane takes on a variety of roles, and his experience lends that gravitas that allows an audience to settle in and relax, knowing that it’s in good hands. John Fredo plays a world-weary realist so well (he was recently George in OF MICE AND MEN and then Juan Peron in EVITA). Jonas Barranca as Tulsa brings a little eye candy to the show. And it’s good to see Jordan Louise Fischer who has been a wonderful “discovery” at Shakespeare in Delaware Park with his comic chops.

Arianna Davidow, recently seen in sex-pot roles in EVITA (mistress), IN THE HEIGHTS (Vanessa), and WILD PARTY (Queenie) here ably reigns it in playing the more cloistered June, forced to perform the same damn childish role for 10 years in a row. The trio of strippers who take Louise under their wing include the previously mentioned Charmagne Chi, and Maria Droz as Mazeppa, who does unusual things with a horn, and Michele Marie Roberts as Electra, with her electric bustier, all of whom bring a whole lot of energetic fun. Second acts get to cash in on all the development of first acts, and these three ladies set the bar high for Act II.

Unfortunately, and it pains me to say it because she’s such a pillar of Buffalo theater, Loraine O’Donnell as Mama Rose doesn’t quite deliver. The role was initially created for the larger than life Ethel Merman (who, by the way, refused to star in a musical by the “unknown” Stephen Sondheim, which was why Jule Styne was brought in to write the music). The show ran on Broadway for 702 performances partly because Merman WAS the queen of the Broadway musical. In fact, the song by Irving Berlin (who turned down GYPSY) “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN) became Merman’s theme song, and it fits. So, even though Mama Rose is a coveted role for mature actors, you’re always in the shadow of Merman, not to mention Rosalind Russell, who played the role on screen (Merman being a relative “unknown” in Hollywood… talk about karma).

It’s the complexity of the character that makes it a coveted role. So, maybe it was a little under-rehearsed (I went second night); maybe it was an off-night; but the high notes weren’t there and the subtleties of the role didn’t come through. And, the big finale number “Rose’s Turn,” where Rose (who lives in a fantasy world in her own mind) finally has a moment of honest clarity, just seemed to go on way too long.

But, go, because there is so much intricacy to this musical that there’s a lot to love, and while not all scenes and numbers are of the same caliber, the good ones are good, and you won’t want to miss them.

Photo: Jesse Sloier


*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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