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'Gypsy:' Perseverance musical tells tale of success at any cost

Theatre review

Posted: Thursday, January 25, 2001

Perseverance is midway through its American season, one of the aims of which is to answer the question "What makes a story American?" Half-time is a good time to recap the progress so far.

Initially, it struck me as an odd theme, as America is what I came to Alaska to escape. Around our house, we don't call it "Going Outside." We call it "Going to America," and we only do it under protest and/or when a relative coughs up a ticket (although we do come back with suitcases crammed full of neat stuff).

While I first found Perseverance's American theme a strange choice, on reflection it began to make some sense. Artistic Director Peter DuBois, in his vision for the season, said "...we (Alaskans) exhibit the most profound and complex parts of the American psyche: The frontier, the heroic, the persistent dream of a greater future, rule-breaking, racism and the pursuit of God."

The season opened with "Wit," which, while a phenomenal first effort from Margaret Edson, had a rather ludicrous theme: Intense thought is a barrier to a fully realized life, and emotion is salvation. As though the American people needed to be informed of this. (America is not globally notorious for its output of intellectuals. Frank and Jesse James are more representative of America than Henry and William James.)

"Desire Under the Elms" was the second offering in this riveting journey into the heart of America. Fortunately, Lucy Thurber, Kate Whoriskey and Fernando Nogueira cut the American Shakespeare's Greek tragedy in half, and excised his bizarre vernacular to come up with an intelligent and intelligible story of greed, desire, incest, adultery and infanticide. America is the homeland of the tabloid.

Which brings us to "Gypsy," a hummable tale of success at any cost. America is like the guy who gets you on Jerry Springer. Oscar Wilde contended that are two ways to dislike a work of art: One is to dislike it; the other is to like it for rational reasons.

Unfortunately, I like "Gypsy" for rational reasons. Many think it's the best Broadway musical ever made. I think it's a skid row Von Trapps. ("Getting out of Seattle" is second only to escaping Kansas in the great American pantheon of lust for the frontier.)

There are a lot of things to like here. Even the miscues and wobbly spots - and wobbly spotlights, were charming in a cheesy kind of way. Leigh B. Miller is a lovable moppet. Glenn J. Miller is a lovable dork. Summer Koester spends most of her time portraying an aggravated adolescent, but other than that, is a lovable Louise.

There is a nasty undercurrent to this American rags-to-riches story, in addition to Rose being the stage mother from Hell. There were child labor laws, even in the 1930s. There is enough child abuse, obsession, delusion, projection, denial, transferal and familial pathology to make the play less than entirely enjoyable for me.

On the other hand, Darius Jones as Tulsa turns in the strongest performance of the show. Whatever that ineffable quality that separates stars from the rest of us yeomen, he has, in spades. He inhabits space other people merely move through.

The rest of the audience enjoyed Karen R. Cross' performance much more than I did. I didn't find her performance as Rose "big" enough, although that may be a lingering Ethel Mermanism on my part.

The set design by Michael Matthews is a creative use of the limited space at Perseverance. The stage is a triptych, the center of which is a stage within a stage. The sides are storybooks that open up to the various anonymous rooms Gypsy and Rose move through in the course of their lives.

"Gypsy" takes place on the cusp of the death of vaudeville and the birth of burlesque. There are four forms of entertainment that are strictly American: Jazz, burlesque, rock 'n' roll, and made for cable movies of the week. "Gypsy" is a great icon of American musical theater, and is as conflicted as our relationship with success.



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