Entertainment » Theatre

Director Terrence J. Nolen Finds the Enduring Greatness of 'Gypsy'

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday May 26, 2017

When Arden Theater artistic director Terrence J. Nolen announced to his opening night audience of "The Secret Garden" last season that he was planning a revival of "Gypsy" starring Philly stage star Mary Martello as Mama Rose there was raucous applause. Martello is indeed a triple threat versatile actor-singer with the vocal prowess to handle Sondheim's boffo numbers "Some People," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and the ultimate finale number "Rose's Turn."

"Gypsy" is based on Gypsy Rose Lee's 1957 memoirs that recounted her life growing up on the vaudeville circuit during the Great Depression, before she became an internationally renowned star stripper. The show starred the larger than life Broadway star Ethel Merman as the Gypsy's ultimate stage mother Rose. The book was by the late gay playwright Arthur Laurents, with music composed by Jule Styne (at Merman's insistence) and lyrics by the then 29-year-old Stephen Sondheim.

In a phone interview this week, Nolen said he hadn't considered staging "Gypsy" before now, "It was really Mary that led me to want to stage this production, and then of course, when you start to develop it, you realize that the whole production has to be great too." In fact even before the opening the show had been extended a week to accommodate ticket demands.

The enduring appeal of Gypsy is that audiences come to it for different reasons, Nolen observes, "It's a touching and tough mother-daughter story for one," adding and "aside from its the dancing, the songs, the kids and Chowsie the dog... it is the way the book, orchestra and lyrics work together, in "Gypsy," it really first-rate."
There was another thing about the musical that now appealed to director Nolen, the quest for keeping one's dreams alive no matter how hard the obstacles. "We had a lot of meetings right after the election. It struck me how the pursuit of celebrity the worship of success is constantly shifting. In 'Gypsy,' Mama Rose is obsessed with vaudeville and yet it's dying out. There are seismic shifts in the world and there was so much uncertainty," Nolen observes "Yet these characters pursue their own dreams not knowing where the world is going to be. Will our society support, complicate or dash our dreams," adding, "We are in that time again."

Without doubt "Gypsy" is still "a very showbiz story," Nolen said. It is still widely considered a crowning achievement in musical theater. "It has a drive and muscularity to it, combined with the nuance and specificity of Sondheim's lyrics."

"Gypsy" may have been a star turn for an aging Ethel Merman, but the role of Rose is one of the most demanding lead roles, dramatically and vocally. Nolen reminded that the musical was in its tryout run in Philadelphia with Merman and went on to become one of her legendary performances. The show has since attracted a top Broadway stars who had the range and stamina to put their stamp on it, among them Angela Lansberry, Tyne Daley, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone.

Nolen's has directed many Sondheim musicals including his much celebrated productions of "Sweeney Todd" and "A Little Night Music." And he has been noted for streamlining Sondheim's more challenging shows including "Passion," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Assassins" and "Pacific Overtures."

For "Gypsy," Nolen's artistic team are among the finest designers on the Philly theater scene. James Krozner's scenic design is a contrast of backstage grit and showbiz dazzle. The lead cast includes fine singer-actors Rachel Camp as rebellious Baby June, Joilet Harris as 'bump it with a trumpet' stripper Mazeppa and Malik Akil as the gifted young tap-dancer Tulsa. Veteran stage and screen actor Anthony Heald plays Rose's put-upon fiancée Herbie and Caroline Dooner portrays the shy Louise who transforms herself into Gypsy Rose Lee.

Musical director-conductor Ryan Touhey wrote the orchestral reductions for the show's nine musicians, that, Nolen assured, completely "honor the specificity of the show's original orchestrations." Krozner devised multi-tier metal towers on either side of the Arden's amphitheater's stage for more clarity and dimension so that the music was "felt" onstage and in the audience.

For Mary Martello, playing Mama Rose caps off a season of acclaim which started with the stellar reviews she received as the lead in the Lantern Theater's production of George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Earlier this year she played the acerbic Lady Bracknell in Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Walnut Street Theater, while she was rehearsing "Gypsy."

Nolen said that as much as he came to love "Gypsy," "I don't have a favorite number, because, actually it changes over time. But I will say watching Mary develop 'Rose's Turn' has been a remarkable theater experience for me."

The Arden Theatre Co. production of "Gypsy" runs through June 25, go to www.ardentheatre.org | or call 215.922.1122 for information | The Arden Theatre 40 N. 2nd St. Philadelphia PA

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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