All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Krissy Fraelich is terrific as Mama Rose in the Media’s production of “Gypsy” because she musters all the moxie and bravura necessary for the role while never seeming any way but real and honestly motivated.
Early in the play, Herbie describes Rose as “looking like a pioneer woman” embarking on her next conquest. I don’t know if Fraelich took those words to heart when he considered how to play the opportunity-wary Rose, but it is the image that denotes her performance most accurately.
Fraelich’s Rose is always attuned to the next idea, always thinking about how to maintain and promote the vaudeville act that features her daughters, and never willing to abandon any hope or give up on any of her numerous dreams.
While clinging to ambition and seizing any rope that will keep her in show business, Fraelich’s Rose manages to exude reality. She is never glamorous or sophisticated but always the Seattle woman who plugs away to get everyone working, fed, rehearsed, and houses. There’s a normality about Fraelich’s Rose and makes her pushier, dreamier side more pronounced and frightening. She can comes from any street across America because most of all, she is a woman who wants the best for her daughters and stays a maternal homebody of sorts even as she and the girls troop the length and breadth of America playing various circuits.
This Rose is a worker, a promoter. She has no airs. She doesn’t change as her act becomes more successful and is on the brink of cracking New York. She’s everywoman with a greater yen to be on top or have her daughters be stars.
Because Fraelich combines a plain and unpretentious personality with driving determination, she creates a complete portrait of a complex woman, one who will battle, sew, and even eat dog food to get her children ahead, yet one will sacrifice some of her own happiness and need for attention to reach that objective.
This is a powerful Rose who is more formidable because that American pioneer woman seems to loom behind everything she does and because she enjoys the practical, social, and fulfilling aspects of the theater to its glamor of fame.
Fraelich doesn’t always give a lot of color to her line readings, but she’s clear, sincere, and consistent. There is no mistaking who her Rose is or the measures she will take to achieve what she wants. Like Rose, Fraelich doesn’t have to push a joke or sarcastic comment for it to land in a way that a specific and realistic context. This Rose doesn’t try to say anything funny or clever. She just knows how to let the turns of phrase Arthur Laurents wrote for her do the job. Every minute she’s on the Media stage, Fraelich convinces you she is a dynamic woman living her life as she sees fit, or necessary. There isn’t a jot of falseness or guile about her. Even when Rose flirts so cunningly with Herbie, it’s the practiced skill in talking to men and her truthful way of expressing herself that seals the relationship, not tricks or wiles.
Then there’s Fraelich’s singing — expressive, purposeful, textured, and perfect in diction and pitch. (Well, one verse of “Some People” was reversed on opening night, but “is to shrug!”)
Fraelich’s vocals pack the power of her entire performance. She finds the right mood and tone for each song, and I would be willing to bet she didn’t vary an iota from the score as Jule Styne wrote. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” had the right chill, and her “Rose’s Turn” was every bit the sensational star spot it was meant to be.
Rose is the centerpiece of “Gypsy,” but not its only character or even the lead character. The glory of Jesse Cline’s production for the Media is Fraelich leads an illustrious cast that, with the exception of a couple of small, functionary parts, is performed grandly from start to finish. Krissy Fraelich is lustrous, but there are plenty of fireworks from Jennie Eisenhower, Hillary Parker, and Karen Toto as the Wichita strippers (boy, I wish I had to name a Wichita baseball team right now), Avery Sobczak as a dashing Tulsa, Portia Murphy as Baby June, Elisa Fucich as the sardonic Miss Cratchitt, Megan Rucidlo as Agnes/Amanda, and the sparking Anna Giordano as Miss Gypsy Rose Lee.
Giordano, working in a range far different from the faithful romantic in last season’s “Ghost,” finds first the modesty and then the wit and the boldness of Louise. Her “Little Lamb” calms Cline’s production and adds sweet counterpoint to the show. Her emergence from the rookie stripper on the Wichita stage to a Minsky’s headliner is well paced and has the frisson of excitement Laurents, Styne, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim intended for it.
Giordano can never look homely, so it’s less of a revelation when her Louise looks in a mirror and discovers she’s beautiful, but she has the savvy and discipline to hide her light under a bushel and act Louise with quiet grace and humility until Gypsy Rose gets her star turn as the world’s classiest and most famous ecdysiast.
Giordano’s showdown with Mama Rose has the feel of a genuine mother-daughter conflict. More, she radiates love and respect for Rose throughout Cline’s production, even when that love is tinged with terror during Rose’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” eruption.
Mama Rose spends 90 percent of her time on stage. She needs a respite, and Laurents, Sondheim, and Styne provide her one of the best in musical theater history — Tessie Tura, Miss Mazeppa, and Electra — those proud strip women from Wichita, demonstrating the specialties that hide their lack of talent in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
Jennie Eisenhower gets an advantage among the strip women by Tessie sharing a dressing room with Louise and getting to spar a little with Rose, plea for the protection of Herbie, reprimand Agnes for using her G-string as a necklace, and making choice wisecracks. Eisenhower can get a laugh with simple retorts like, “Weren’t we all?” when Herbie says Louise was booked in a burlesque house by mistake, or “$30,” when she asks if Rose is Louise’s mother while haggling a fee for some sewing. Parker is aces with Mazeppa’s trumpet, and the horn players in Chris Ertelt’s top-notch do some good licks on Parker’s behalf. (Local note: When “Gypsy” was doing a tryout in Philadelphia before its 1959 Broadway opening, Jule Styne went to the Troc Theatre to see some basement-level burlesque. The routines entertained, but what really struck Styne was the shrill licks the trumpeters did. He was so impressed, he added them to “Gypsy’s” score. Kudos to Deann Giles, Ed Jakuboski, and Tony DeSantis in Styne’s memory. Not only for playing the composer’s music so excitingly but because in spite of being a music capital, Philadelphia has lacked good horns in its bands for decades. Given the playing in both “Gypsy” and the Walnut’s “High Society,” it looks as if that deficiency has passed.) Karen Toto adds comic value as Electra, and the stripping trio make a show-stopper out of “You Gotta a Gimmick” with a big boost for Dann Dunn’s choreography, which is excellent throughout the production.
Avery Sobczak is nicely disarming as Tulsa and performs “All I Need Now is The Girl,” with the debonair style with which he is trying to endow the number. Dunn again aids mightily. Portia Murphy presages June’s prodigious talent as Baby June, and Taylor Elise Rector keeps up the good work as June ages. Rector is especially good in the scene in which June assures a skeptical Miss Cratchitt she is only nine-years-old and has a telling heart-to-heart sequence with Louise. Rector and Giordano make a rousing success of “If Mama Was Married.” Elisa Fucich adds comic value to the scene as Cratchitt. Megan Rucidlo evolves nicely as Agnes. Good supporting work is also turned in by J.P. Dunphy and Roger Ricker.
Kelly Briggs is a likeable Herbie. He conveys an affection for Rose and concern for Louise, June, and the various troupes that travel with him. After seeing Briggs in several roles at the Media, I conclude he is happier in character parts. His Thenardier in “Les Misérables” was extraordinary while his performances in “Mame,” “Hello Dolly,” and “Gypsy” were fine but standard. No one could cavil with Briggs’s work, but it doesn’t have the dash, fire, or reality Fraelich gives Rose, and Giordano gives Louise.
Jesse Cline likes to comment and bring some documentary verité to his productions by using slides from the period. His choices for “Gypsy” were about his best. The leering men is the burly-cue were a snide joke, but the view of vaudeville marquees on Broadway and other period shots brought context and texture to “Gypsy.” Cline is also to congratulated for the smooth flow the show. About the only cavil I have is actually a wonder, and that’s why no door or entrance was built upstage right for stage traffic, especially in the boarding house scene. In a realistic production, it seems awkward and illogical for characters to stomp across the width of the downstage apron to effect entrances and exits that needed to be more immediate.
“Gypsy” is an often produced classic for good reason. Arthur Laurents provides a strong story that gives characters from Rose and Herbie to Tulsa and Tessie Tura to play. Styne’s score is one the liveliest in the Broadway canon, and Sondheim’s lyrics are not only brilliant, but they presage the genius and innovation that was to come (and continues to this day).
“Gypsy” runs through Sunday, November 1, at the Media Theatre, 104 East State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $42, with discounts for seniors and students, and can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or by visiting http://www.mediatheatre.org.