By Mukul Khurana
It is probably a coincidence, but two very different theatre companies are showcasing the topics of fame and the price people are willing to pay to achieve it—specifically as it pertains to mothers and daughters. Ruthless! The Musical is playing at the Moxie and Gypsy is playing at the Cygnet. Though the topics are similar, greed, ego, and ambition—the treatment and the motivations are very different.
Ruthless!, based on a book and lyrics by Joel Paley, is a beautiful piece that grows on you slowly. The music, by the famous Marvin Laird, is excellent. Leigh Scarrit and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directed the play with great finesse. How could it be otherwise? They both have so many credits in the theatrical field. Having said that, a few comments about what did not go perfectly.
It may have been the seating/vantage point on the right side of the theatre, but the set felt claustrophobic in the first act—it was too busy and some of the view was obstructed. Also, the recorded music was not coming in clearly, thus forcing the actors to speak and sing louder than usual. Indeed, Moxie is a small and intimate stage—it doesn’t lend itself to too much furniture or props. These were, however, minor oversights in this riveting production of Ruthless! On the other hand, it was that same vantage point that allowed for the full appreciation of the spectacular entrance by David McBean (Sylvia St. Croix). Sylvia set the stage and made the introductions.
In the first act, two other excellent performers set the ball rolling—Eileen Bowman (mother Judy Denmark) and Ainsley Savant (daughter Tina Denmark). The basic story is pretty simple: Tina wants to play Pippi Longstocking in a school production. Her mother is not against the idea as she vicariously lives through her daughter’s talent. The problem is that Tina will do absolutely whatever it takes to get the lead role. The concept of “play the lead or nothing” doesn’t appeal to Judy. She wants her daughter to have a normal life with solid values.
And so, the plot is set into motion—Louise (Madeline Hernandez), dies in order to make way for Tina as the lead of the school production. But this doesn’t happen until we meet Miss Thorn (Jeannine Marqui) as a teacher of the theatrical arts. But wait… Tina has a grandmother, Lita Encore (Pat Launer) who happens to be a critic. This is convenient and funny because Pat Launer is really a theatre critic on the local scene (kudos for having the courage to put herself out there knowing what critics can do.).
But it doesn’t end there—there are two more characters worthy of a mention: Eve Allabout (Cashae Monya) is the hilarious “not so great assistant (not maid)” of the later Judy Denmark and Shirley Johnston (Miss Block) as the “not so subtle lesbian reporter “. This ensemble presents a thoroughly black and cynical comedy—the kind you don’t want to be caught laughing at—but can’t help it. It is smart, witty, and very enjoyable. Go see it at Moxie Theatre until August 7, 2016.
Gypsy, the other musical about ambition, greed, and other negative show business attributes is a slightly different animal … This one is based on the true story of Gypsy Rose Lee—the famous burlesque dancer. This is not a new show—but what a show! Arthur Laurents wrote the book, music was by Jule Styne, and lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim. Need I say more? Bringing this production into Season XIV 2016 at Cygnet, are the superbly talented Sean Murray (Director), Terry O’Donnell (Music Director), and David Brannen (Choreography). This is a sensational performance of a classic. Sean Murray refers to it as “the perfect musical.” After seeing it, you might consider it “the perfectly performed musical.”
Credit for the electrifying dance numbers and acting goes all the way from the Newsboys performing with Baby Louise and Baby June to the meatier roles played by Manny Fernandes (Herbie), David Kirk Grant (Uncle Jocko and other roles), Linda Libby (Rose), Allison Spratt Pearce (Louise), Katie Whalley Banville (June), and Marci Anne Wuebben (Tessie Tura). We all know the story, but just to recap … Rose wants her daughters to shine—actually, she wants one daughter to shine. June and Louise perform together, but June is the attraction and Louise is the “background.” Eventually, Herbie enters the picture as manager (and love interest for Rose). Nothing changes for June and Louise—June is still the favored one.
As time goes on, ambition takes its toll on June—she doesn’t want to be just her mother’s dream. Meanwhile, Louise starts moving from the background to the foreground. One thing is constant—both girls want the love and attention of their mother. That is something that the manipulative and brash Rose doles out in small portions. Whether you are a man or a woman, we have all been there. Everyone can identify with wanting to please parents.
At the end of the 19th century, according to Taylor Wycoff, “Vaudeville emerged as a uniquely American phenomenon. The Industrial Revolution had transformed the social and economic structure of America …” As a result, in order to appeal to all kinds of ethnicities and tastes, entertainment had to go in the direction of variety. These are the roots of Gypsy. However, in the 1920s, family entertainment was giving way to the sophistication of “nightclubs, jazz, and new dance styles.” June is of the earlier era—Louise is the product of a later time. In 1929, with the advent of the Great Depression, leisure became something the masses could not afford. The future was burlesque and Louise adapted.
Linda Libby delivered some powerful scenes and some great music. It is fascinating to watch the metamorphosis of the young and shy Baby Louise into Gypsy Rose Lee. Allison Spratt Pearce pulls that off incredibly well. Did I mention the Minsky Strippers and burlesque dancers? There is something in this play for everyone. It truly is the “mother of all musicals.” Lucky for you, Gypsy is running at Cygnet until September 4, 2016. There are no excuses to not witness this extravagant offering.
By the way, San Diego boasts a lively and exciting burlesque scene of its own. There will be coverage coming up in the next few months—stay tuned for more information.