The Gallery Players of Brooklyn have opened their 50th (yes, 50th) season with a crackling production of Gypsy, the 1959 warhorse (warcow?) of a musical that never seems to get old. With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy could be said to be the epitome of the Broadway musical’s golden age. Like classical music, its songs still repay close listens after all this time for their sophisticated construction, emotional force, lyrical smarts, sheer fun, and resonance with the music of the Depression era they depict.
With the largest cast in the Gallery Players’ half-century history, the production boasts a highly talented cast and creative team and, equally important, a big collective heart that gives this smart, reverential take on the iconic show-business musical just the right tone.
The small children who play Baby June, Baby Louise, and the other pint-sized vaudeville performers in the opening scenes are absolutely adorable, with remarkable stage presence and surprising skill. They actually made me nervous that after being bowled over by cuteness, I might be disappointed with the adult cast.
Not so. The role of Mama Rose, the beating heart of this big, sprawling show, demands a performer with a big, generous personality. Victoria Bundonis doesn’t have a powerhouse voice, but she brings the deep, funny, tragedy-tinged energy needed to bring to life this ultimate stage mother – the nurturer and oppressor of the show’s fictionalized versions of the girls who became actress June Havoc and burlesque goddess Gypsy Rose Lee.
Those two key characters need unflagging focus and energy, too, and they get them. Pam Zazzarino gives “Dainty June” a piercing, anything-but-dainty nasality in song – just right for vaudeville – and a warm, pathetic vulnerability when she reveals to Louise her long-simmering frustration with Mama Rose’s control. Elizabeth Nestlerode’s depiction of Louise’s growth, from tiny-voiced shy bird (“Little Lamb”) to glamorous stripper extraordinaire in an all-stops-out staging of “Let Me Entertain You,” is a small marvel.
Dave Konig’s gruffly charming Herbie is a warm, winning anchor for Rose and her succession of terrible acts. He’s both likable and believable as the gentle bear of an agent whose frustrated love for Rose never wanes. Adam Fontana brings flair and heart to his song-and-dance number as Tulsa. And the three strippers have just the right mix of human warmth and raunchy pizazz.
A big part of the production’s success is how the staging plays up what’s wry and ironic in the song lyrics. Mark Harborth’s nuanced direction works tightly with Jerry Mittelhauser’s colorful sets and by-turns bubbly and sensitive choreography, enlivened by Joey Haws’s splendid period costumes. The three-piece band does right by Stine’s brilliant score, with Leslie Wickham’s sharp musical direction helping to get the most from the cast.
The Gallery Players have gone all-out to give one of Broadway’s great musicals a staging just about as spectacular as one could hope for in a small theater, and one that would, I suspect, delight its legendary creators. Catch it through Oct. 9 at the Gallery Players, 199 14th Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn. Tickets are available online or at 866-811-4111.