'Gypsy: A Musical Fable'HART production an ambitious take on Broadway classic
When director Steve Lloyd says that “Gypsy: A Musical Fable” pulls out all the stops, believe it. The classic Broadway musical, which happens to be the most expensive piece in Haywood Arts Regional Theatre’s history, boasts 14 sets, more than 30 actors and somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 costumes. In terms of logistics, Lloyd likened the show to a military campaign.
“It’s just big,” he said, smiling playfully at the understatement.
“Gypsy,” which opens this Friday, might just be the most ambitious play HART has ever done and yet, at its core, its story is much more human than one might imagine. Lloyd explained that underneath all the glitz and musical numbers is a complex relationship between a young woman and her mother. What makes this age-old dynamic so compelling is that the girl is none other than Gypsy Rose Lee, the legendary strip-tease artist. And her mother — best known to the world as Mama Rose — is certainly the most famous (and frightening) stage mom in popular culture.
Despite the show’s name, it’s really about Mama and the perils of living one’s life through one’s children, who inevitably grow up.
In Lloyd’s wry words, “Mama Rose didn’t know how to be on the sidelines.”
That’s a big part of what Lyn Donley, who plays the brassy lady, loves about the part. With a laugh, she said that she “gets so much aggression out on stage.” With nearly every song and in almost every scene, she’s loud and brash.
“I’m always yelling at somebody, and if I’m not yelling, I’m spitting,” she said, her eyes wide with enjoyment.
Mama's unrelenting, impossible nature is what makes her such a delicious, coveted role throughout the theater world. Donley joins the ranks of Patti Lupone, Ethel Merman and Bette Midler, who all had a crack at inhabiting the famously horrific matriarch.
Though Mama is one tough lady, Donley enjoys her and even understands her to a point. She’s not evil, Donley explained, she’s just self-centered. There is nothing she won’t do for show business. It doesn’t matter if that means conniving, stealing or even eating dog food. She does whatever it takes to keep her children, and thereby her, in the spotlight.
“I like her immensely,” Donley said. “She is not afraid to go for it. She was absolutely the first woman’s libber.”
Whether she’s a feminist or a monster, or perhaps a little of both, is up to the audience to decide.
What’s for sure, however, is that it takes an enormously captivating character to compete with the titular Gypsy, arguably the most famous stripper in history. Recent high school graduate and HART veteran Laura Gregory, who’s taken on the role, didn’t gloss over the challenge of becoming a character who not only has to take off her clothes on stage, but also must harbor such intense mommy issues.
Though Gypsy begins the play mousy and meek, Gregory explained that by the end, she’s an icon.
“She knew that if she looked at somebody and winked at them, they would pass out,” Gregory said. “I guess I had to find that inside myself.”
She knows that Lloyd was a big part of this transformation. He was the one who encouraged her to embrace this character, someone so different from herself. She remembers him telling her to surrender to Gypsy, whom he calls “queen of the striptease.”
This ongoing metamorphosis, coupled with the fact that this is by far Gregory’s biggest production to date, has made it a huge learning experience — even before it has opened to the public.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Lloyd and Mark Jones, the show’s assistant director and choreographer, hope that audiences will be similarly wowed as they leave the theater for the next four weekends. While this is a classic, beloved musical, they both feel it doesn’t go the way of most traditional song-and-dance shows.
Though Jones loves the music in the piece (and insists it has the “best overture of all musicals, ever”), he feels that the writing and story is strong enough that it would still be great even without the songs. The music only punctuates the drama which is already tightly drawn. It’s not, as Jones put it, “fluffy.”
“It’s not your typical musical,” he said.
It makes sense, then, that this is not your typical HART production. Lloyd explained that though its staging is more massive than any of his past shows here, it still manages to be more intimate and heartfelt than much of musical theater.
“It’s a very emotionally engrossing story, where you really come to care about these people,” he said.
And yes, he was even talking about Mama Rose.
HART will present “Gypsy” at 7:30 p.m. July 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 29, 30 and at 3 p.m. July 10, 17, 24 and 31 at the HART Theater, 250 Pigeon St. in Waynesville. Box office hours are 1 to 5 p.m Monday through Saturday. The box office can be reached by phone at 456-6322. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.harttheatre.com.