KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 14, 1999
(MUSIC: “Everything’s Coming up Roses”)
Seems like everything’s coming up Sondheim. Under the moon or under the stars, you can hear the work of the brilliant composer/lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. You can virtually trace his evolution. Moonlight Amphitheater is presenting “Gypsy” and Starlight Musical Theatre is taking us “Into the Woods.”
Long heralded as one of the greatest musicals of all time, turning 40 this year, “Gypsy” is one of those theatrical collaborations of true genius. The book is by Arthur Laurents (who also wrote “West Side Story”), the music is by Jule Styne (who composed “Bells are Ringing,” “Funny Girl” and “Peter Pan”). And the ever-so-clever lyrics are by the young Stephen Sondheim. He was 29 at the time, and had recently finished his first big gig, the lyrics to “West Side Story.” By 1970, he was off on his own, writing both music and lyrics, and changing the face of the American musical forever. The juxtaposition of these two shows points up all the differences.
“Gypsy” is a pretty straight-ahead story, based on the autobiography of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But she’s not really the main focus of this caterpillar-to-butterfly tale. It’s her mother who takes – make that demands — center stage. That’s Rose, the queen of the gorgon stage mothers, yelling from the back of the auditorium, (“Sing out, Louise!”), bullying agents, producers and most of all, her two daughters, pushing them to be stars on the dying vaudeville circuit. Abandoned by three husbands, a boyfriend and her prize youngest offspring, Rose turns all her attention on plain-Jane Louise, who ultimately sheds her old skin (not to mention her clothes), in a unique and most intriguing way.
Rose is a character actors die for. It’s garnered a Tony Award for everyone who’s ever played it on Broadway, from Ethel Merman to Tyne Daly. Up in Vista, Cathy Gene Greenwood is taking her second crack at the monster-role she first played at Moonlight in 1988. She’s got a fine handle on it, and she grows, just as the gargantuan needs of Rose expand, during the course of the show. As Louise evolves into Gypsy, Melina Marie Kalomas turns out to be gorgeous, extremely talented from first to last, and Erin Johnson is a high-kicking delight as her sister June. The two tiny tots who play young Louise and June are a kick, too – sisters Kamri and Kaylee Collins, both already veteran actors. Howard Bickle is a hoot as Uncle Jocko, the kid-hating kid-show host. Robert Laur is solid but stiff, frequently aping Karl Malden’s movie portrayal of the patient, put-upon agent/boyfriend Herbie. As expected, the three strippers (and their costumes) are sensational, in their show-stopping demonstration of how to get a gimmick to get ahead.
Under the direction of Don and Bonnie Ward, “Gypsy’s” pace is sluggish, but the cast is great, the production first-rate, and, as Baby June and Gypsy promise, “you’ll have a real good time.” One can’t quite make that promise about “Into the Woods.”
Like the woods themselves, it’s dark and deep, and maybe you just don’t want to go in there. Sondheim is plumbing the depths of human behavior through an intellectual exploration of fairy tales. The first act is sort of fun, bringing together fanciful figures like Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Little Red (of the Hood), Rapunzel, Cinderella and the Baker and his wife. They all have wishes, and they get just what they want. But as we see in the second act – that isn’t quite enough. This is the grimness of fairy tales; many of the characters are maimed or killed, in the act of making us face some haunting truths about human nature.
“Into the Woods” premiered here at the Old Globe, in 1986. The book is by James Lapine, the score and libretto by the ever-arch-and-arcane Sondheim, whose notoriously intelligent, machine-gun-rapid lyrics here combine with his atonal, dysrhythmic melodies, presenting an inordinate challenge for any singer.
Director Brian Wells and his cast do a really fine job, but the competition from the planes is more intrusive than ever – because the story is so language-driven. The piece is too long and the pacing sluggish, but some of the performances are outstanding, especially looks-and-voice knockout Leigh Scarritt as the Witch, Sandy Campbell as Cinderella and Brenda Burke as the Baker’s wife. The orchestra in the pit sounds great, the costumes, sets and special effects are top-flight, and Starlight is to be commended for taking a musical theater risk. But all those unsingable songs! No “Gypsy” singalongs here. Sondheim should’ve stuck to lyrics – and Starlight should’ve put all that refurbishing money into moving the Bowl to a quieter location. This show just isn’t a walk in the woods.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.