Scrappy, spit shined, threadbare, and full of egg rolls.
Is that a description of Rose’s family in Gypsy or your cousin’s alt country band? Or the students and faculty and everyday peoples that make up the cast of the Platonic musical, which opens tonight at 8:00 at Thomas Nelson? Probably all three–and me when I lived next to the Thorndale L stop in Chicago.
As sure as God made green apples, show biz mothers are a part of show business, and no other stage mom is more memorable than Rose. Based on the real Gypsy Rose Lee’s real mother and managed beautifully here by Maggie Codella, her place in musical theater history rivals her indelible mark on our cultural consciousness. She is over-the-top and heartbreakingly serious. Terms like “mogul” and “idol” and the like have been coopted by the devil’s rectangles, but archetype has not. Nor has Platonic form. Just as Rose is the archetype of a stage mom, Gypsy is the Platonic form of the modern musical.
They are both version 1.0, and they both had me by the brain goo at last night’s dress rehearsal. Children dressed in top hats played video games while the orchestra fortified. Jule Styne’s score sounded like Gil Evans’ warm orchestrations on Miles Ahead. Lail Hayes, the mom, dad, spirit animal, and stage manager, scurried across the stage with a tape roll for an arm band. Jennifer Abbott, who was born to play a curmudgeon, looked gleeful within the swarm of anxiety that is required by law five minutes before a dress rehearsal.
The best part of seeing every musical at Thomas Nelson for the better part of a decade has been witnessing new talent appear and blossom. Grace Fitzpatrick’s heartwarming tone and effortless range bring the character of Louise into center frame before the narrative does. MJ Dodd deepens the musical’s “You can make it if you try” theme as Tulsa. Eric Powers, who played Duncan with majesty in Macbeth, delivers a stage presence the greener members of the cast latch onto. The chemistry between Rose and Herbie (played by the extraordinary David Garrett) is intimate and expressive.
There is without a doubt no business like show business, and Gypsy fully captures the pioneer spirit it takes to make it under the lights. Even if you have to steal from your own father, it’s better than dying from sitting. Theater is one big grandiose lie, and Rose can “make herself believe anything she makes up.” She may have to steal silverware and make jackets out of blankets, but she’s going to get there. She’s going to make it.
We see her character everywhere, but to my mind the most interesting take is Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, which runs Rose through the funhouse mirror and spits out a stage mom who takes drug concoctions in order to birth carnival freaks. Dunn died earlier this year (WTF 2016?), so her 1989 masterpiece came back into vogue. Geek Love could have just been a grotesque book professors assigned when they wanted to test their tenure, but the emotional poignancy of the novel make it so much more. That is the key to Gypsy’s success: it has the character development of a door-stop Russian novel and all the fun and jokiness of a musical. I felt Louise’s always-a-bridesmaid woe when she sang “Little cat, little cat, Oh, why do you look so blue? Did somebody paint you like that, Or is it your birthday too?” Louise, of course, gets her chance to shine, but you’ll have to go to the show to see it.
The last time I previewed a Thomas Nelson show I wrote about how the performers willingly accept the challenges and grind of standing up a show because it allows them to escape. Last night, in the theater, I disappeared into their world completely. The quote unquote real world ceased to exist as I cheered on Rose and her cranky band of minstrels. So if you’re tired and frightened, betrayed and bewildered, strung out and wound tight, come to the theater to forget about it for a while. Performances are this weekend and next, with Sunday’s show being a matinee.