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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Theater Works
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Effect, Mamma Mia!, Chicago, and The Good Doctor

Amanda Glen, Kelli James, and Scott Hyder
Photo by John Groseclose
Just two years after the success of West Side Story, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins teamed up again, with the addition of composer Jule Styne, to create what is widely regarded as one of the greatest musicals every written: Gypsy. This backstage story that focuses on how the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee came to become a star is receiving an incredibly solid production from Theater Works in Peoria that features Kelli James in a stellar turn as the mother of all stage mothers.

While the musical was based on Gypsy Rose Lee's 1957 autobiography "Gypsy: A Memoir," and the plot does include the journey of Lee from childhood vaudeville performer to burlesque star, the main focus of Gypsy is on Lee's mother Rose and her desperate attempt to turn her two daughters (June and Louise) into stars. Set in the tacky worlds of the touring vaudeville circuit of the 1920s and the raunchier burlesque environs of the '30s, we equally admire, love, pity and also cringe at this determined, delusional stage mother who pokes, prods and pushes her daughters and will do anything to make them famous. But deep-down, Rose hungers for the limelight herself. Gypsy is also a cautionary tale of the desperate desire and drive for fame.

Laurents' script has often been called the best book of a musical ever written. There are no scenes or dialogue that are unnecessary, with fully fleshed out characters that are completely three dimensional. With such well known songs as "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn," Gypsy also has a knock-out score, with Styne's jazz infused music and Sondheim's succinct and witty lyrics.

Director Rusty Ferracane does very good work to ensure that all of his leads deliver realistic, nuanced and truthful performances. Kelli James is superb as Rose. Her singing voice is beautiful and strong and her portrayal runs the gamut from the pushy, controlling and determined stage mom to the woman who shows a warmth and kindness to Herbie, the man who comes into her life, helps manage the girls, and becomes Rose's beau. With James' laser-focused eyes, there is the constant knowledge that her Rose is always thinking about how she can manipulate and use the people around her to better herself and her daughters. When the reality of what she's done finally sinks in toward the very end of the show, James' piercing sobs turn her portrait of this broken-down woman into a heart-wrenching and incredibly moving performance.

Amanda Glen's transformation of Louise from the shy, mousy and quiet tomboy to the woman who realizes she can use sexual innuendo to her advantage is expertly done. As Herbie, Scott Hyder delivers an emotionally rich performance filled with warmth and heart. Kathlynn Rodin fleshes out June more than I've seen in other productions. We clearly see how wise, smart and bright she is underneath her perpetual sunny stage persona, which includes a humorous curly top wig and permanent smile. Her performance with Glen of "If Momma was Married" is a comic and emotional highlight as we see exactly how these two young women feel about the world their mother has practically forced them into.

Joshua Vern displays some fine dance moves as Tulsa, one of the boys Rose hires for their traveling act, and Tracy Burns, Tina Khalil, and Jacqui Notorio are hilarious as the trio of strippers who deliver a knock out version of "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."

Ferracane's direction is exceptional. He doesn't rush the emotional moments yet also ensures the comical scenes and lines deliver big laughs. Choreographer Cydney Trent delivers some fun dances, including several performance numbers for June and her "newsboys" that are appropriately scrappy. Music director Steve Hilderbrand achieves a bright, full and brassy sound from the large orchestra and cast. Brett Aiken's smart set design represents a period theatre stage with projections used for the various settings in the show, and Jeff A. Davis' lighting design is sharp and clear. The costume designs from Landis York offer a pleasant range of period styles, colors and fabrics.

With a gifted cast that features a stunning and nuanced performance by Kelli James as Rose, the showbiz trouper who won't let anything or anyone get in her way, solid direction, and smart creative elements, Theater Works' production of Gypsy is a superb testament to the power of this exceptional musical.

Gypsy runs through September 24th, 2017, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623 815-7930

Directed by Rusty Ferracane
Choreographer: Cydney Trent
Music Direction: Steve Hilderbrand
Scenic Designer: Brett Aiken
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Costume Designer: Landis York
Sound Designer: Matthew Sanders
Hair and Make-Up Designer: DeAndrea Vaughn
Props Designer: Petey Swartz
Stage Manager: Andrea Small

Rose: Kelli James*
Herbie: Scott Hyder
Louise: Amanda Glen
Dainty June: Kathlynn Rodin
Baby June: Allie Angus
Baby Louise: Olivia La Porte
Tap Dancing Urchin: Kai Nunziato-Cruz
Clarinet Boy/Rich Man's son: Cash Haines
Boy Scout: Nixson Morton
Boy Scout: Caelan Koth
Tulsa: Joshua Vern
L.A. Alex Richardson
Yonkers: Charlie Rabago
Angie: Hunter Cuison
Tessie Tura/Mother/Neighbor/Waitress: Tracy Burns
Mazeppa/Mother/Neighbor/Cratchitt: Tina Khalil
Electra/Mother/Neighbor/Renee: Jacqui Notorio
Agnes/Girl: Savoy Graca
Marjorie May/Girl: Camden Wawro
Dolores/Balloon Girl: Katie Tuchi
Thelma: Brenna Jackson
Uncle Jocko/Rich Man/Kringelein/Cigar/Phil: Joseph Cavazos
Georgie/Pop/Weber/Mr. Goldstone/Pastey/Photographer: Todd Corbeil
Chowsie: Rocket Funk

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