Live....live....live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!
Sunday, September 7, 2008
SMALL, NOT FUNNY...... NOT FINE
Norman Duttweiler, Producer
Forestburgh Playhouse/Theater AMDG, Inc.
39 Forestburgh Road
Forestburgh, NY 12777
(I address you informally, since I feel as if we know each other- I have been attending shows at the theater for almost eight years.....and you appear to recognize me when I walk through the door- one of the many charms of a night out at the FBP)
I am writing you in regard to my most recent experience at the Playhouse: “GYPSY”........
One of the reasons I am doing so is that you and your associates ask us for feedback, on stage and in the programs- the insert questionnaire makes it clear that you are interested in what we, the viewing audience, think and feel in response to the various performances- and while I wish I had more positive comments regarding this particular production, please be aware that I have enjoyed many shows in the past and have contacted you in other seasons with praise as well........so my interest in doing so is not an isolated incident.
I’m an avid theater enthusiast and have enjoyed many performances at the Forestburgh Playhouse over the years- therefore I implore you to receive this in the spirit in which it is intended. I am a fan and shall remain so- however, for me, GYPSY was a disaster- from the second the overture began.....and remained so until I left at intermission- something I have done fewer than six times in the fifty years I have been attending live theater.
It would be fair to say that I have a soft spot in my heart for GYPSY- it has always been one of my favorites and I was thrilled to see that you were mounting a production this summer- I have seen the show done many, many times, in assorted venues, from Broadway to Summer Stock, so it would be unfair to assume that I arrived with any sort of preconceived notion of what was to come.
That being said, I felt strongly enough about this particular production to share my thoughts with you and purposely waited a good period of time before doing so, since my initial reaction (aside from horror and dismay) was one of pure anger.
I, as an audience member, felt cheated and betrayed on Tuesday, July 1st, perhaps even more so because I was excited to be seeing one of my favorite shows- in one of my favorite places- the Forestburgh Playhouse!
I think I am fairly well versed in the theater and have had my share of experience both on and off the stage , which gives me some insight to both viewpoints (in my own humble opinion)- so without further ado- I will now share.......
I think that there are some pieces better left to their own devices- and GYPSY to me, is no exception. While it might be “fun” to play with Shakespeare and set MACBETH in the Wild, Wild West- it is not necessarily a good idea, nor (in my humble opinion) is it a good idea to “rethink” the role of Mama Rose and make her playful, sweet, adorable,sensitive, lovable, naive and vulnerable. I believe that Jule Styne, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim were well aware of what characteristics they wished to portray in Rose- and made fine decisions regarding when to manipulate the audience into realizing those various aspects of a such a dynamic and multifaceted individual.
The fact that the character of Rose is based on an actual living human being also comes into play. While GYPSY is “suggested by the memoirs” of her daughter.....one cannot escape understanding that the show was written about real people and that certain basic and fundamental aspects of their personalities were facts and not necessarily open to interpretation.....
This remains another good argument (in my humble opinion) to not reinterpret a role which has virtually become a part of the American Theater Landscape. When one thinks of the term “Stage Mother” one conjures up a vision of Mama Rose.....and I believe the role should be interpreted by both actor and director as such, along with the respect due the authors of such a brilliant piece of Theater History.
Honestly, I was horrified. If I didn’t know that I was supposed to be ‘surprised’ by Rose’s entrance from the back of the house, I would certainly not have made that assumption based on the entrance made by Leslie Alexander. Given her meek and totally unimposing interpretation of the character, coupled with a choice to have her not be loud, obnoxious or “over the top”- hardly left room for her to appear vulnerable or for the audience to feel for her when her guard is finally let down later on in the show.
The only emotion I felt was one of pity for some of the other performers, who had to work with Ms. Alexander and her incredibly boring, ill-conceived , one-note interpretation of Mama Rose. (Of course, this is only my humble opinion)
Even though I have allowed time to pass between my seeing the show and putting “pen to paper”, I still shudder at some of the unbelievable choices that were made. I phrase this carefully, since I do believe these were, indeed, choices. It would be far more forgivable to think otherwise.
Somewhere along the "rehearsal road” someone made a choice to use a stuffed animal instead of a real, live dog. This seems inconceivable, yet it’s true. One of the many charms of the Forestburgh Playhouse is it’s intimate setting and that there isn’t a “Bad Seat in the House”......why then, even attempt to make me believe that the poor creature is holding a real dog- this isn’t ANNIE for God’s sake......the dog is hardly an integral part of the story line. If a live dog couldn’t be found, or there wasn’t money in the budget, or the dog that had been cast (if only!) died on opening night, why oh why, did someone not just open their mouth (anyone- even the Janitor) and say “For Christ’s sake- just cut the damn dog” ?
To fail so miserably to create the illusion (perhaps I should say “specter”) of poor ‘Chowsie’ immediately set the tone for the evening ahead and barely ten minutes had elapsed.
Quincy Confoy gave a competent and vivacious performance as Baby June. For some bizarre reason, Tim Mulalley was apparently directed (?) to portray POP as a grinning, foolish New York Cabbie who smirked his way through a thankless role, made even more so by the actor’s performance.
Unfortunately for the audience, (and I must say, the lack of response was palpable) we then had to suffer, as a group, through Ms. Alexander’s rendition of ‘Some People’. Weak, unfocused, tuneless and ineffectual are only some of the words that come to mind. I thank God she wasn’t dragging the “Pound Puppy” behind her on a string or holding an “invisible dog leash” from Disneyland in the hand that wasn’t calculating each and every second she had to endure before grabbing that damn plaque off the wall, since we could actually see the actor calculating each and every move she was about to execute before doing so.
By some stroke of extraordinary luck, we had the good fortune of some talent appearing in this train wreck. Bruce Sabath (as Herbie), Jessica Wagner (as June) and Laura Beth Wells (as Louise) were the proverbial “breath of fresh air” in an otherwise talent-free cast. This is a wonder to me, considering the enormous pool of talent that the theater has at it’s disposal. Considering it’s proximity to New York City and the vast array of actors available for the season, it seems incredible that there were not other fine casting choices that could have been made.
Bruce Sabath brought depth and a fine singing voice to the table and must have had difficulty working opposite the wooden, one-note (off key, no less) performance of the aforementioned Leslie Alexander.
While “Small World” could have been a golden opportunity for the audience to catch a glimpse of what lies underneath the facade of false bravado that Rose presents to the world at large, we had already been given little else from her and as a result, the number fell flat on it’s face, despite the valiant efforts of Mr. Sabath.
Suffice it to say that “no comment” is the best tactic to employ rather than discussing some of the other musical numbers in the show. While Quincy Confoy (Baby June)did her best with “Let Me Entertain You” she was backed up by a clumsy gaggle of girly-boys, who apparently were given as little direction as everyone else on stage that evening. The very same group limped their way through “Mr. Goldstone”, a number that is usually performed with vigor and enthusiasm- sadly, this time, not so much.
The clouds parted briefly as Laura Beth Wells took the stage alone to offer her beautiful and plaintive rendition of “Little Lamb” giving the audience a moment to sit back and remember that “GYPSY” was written beautifully and artfully, even though the actress was singing to some sort of stuffed animal- probably the synthetic-fleece version of Chowsie from Act One, Scene One.
Ms. Alexander continued to sedate the audience (and undoubtedly her costar) while performing “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”, which reminded me of the old adage about the “Pink Elephant in the Room”, since all I could think about was “getting away from her” as we suffered through the barnyard sequence and were finally rewarded with two talented people on stage, at the same time.
Jessica Wagner and Laura Beth Wells sang their hearts out (“If Mama Was Married) and roused the audience into showing our collective appreciation for their efforts. As far as I can recall, this was the first time there was actually a positive reaction from the audience, including myself, and we all enthusiastically applauded. Funny, isn’t it?
The role of Tulsa is a plum for any actor lucky enough to pluck it from the audition process.....Not only does the character play a pivotal role in the story line, but has one of the best numbers in the show, which is saying a lot, since the show is (under normal circumstances) chock-full of ‘show-stoppers”.
Apparently, the director (Edward Juvier) did not feel it necessary to cast someone who was capable of both singing and dancing at the same time- since Scott Patrick Allan was in no position to do so, even though it is the only requirement for the actor chosen for the role. Mr. Allan was clearly not up to the challenge since he was literally huffing and puffing
half -way through the routine and clearly had no business attempting to do so, once again leaving it up to Laura Beth Wells and her wig, ( which apparently was a football helmet covered in fake fur-) to salvage the scene.
At this point in the show, one is normally deeply involved in the story and therefore moved by Mama Rose’s reaction to June and Tulsa running off, along with the Newsboys (couldn’t wait to see them go!) and Act One has built up enough momentum to allow Rose to knock us out with one of the show’s signature songs, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”. Sadly ,I was wishing that I had been knocked unconscious, rather than having to suffer through yet another poorly executed hatchet-job. Everything may have been coming up roses, but in this case, they were already wilted and instead of a lovely lingering scent, they left behind the stench of death and decay.
It was never my intention, even after the curtain fell on Act One, to abandon ship- since there were so many wonderful moments in the show still to come. The Toreadorables, the Strippers, Louise’s transformation from ugly duckling into the amazing Gypsy Rose Lee, the list goes on- but I was afraid of what might lie ahead. Act One was such a disaster, I could only imagine the butchering of Act two and I just didn’t have the heart to see it unfold before my already saddened and disillusioned eyes.
It may not have been fair to the performers, but I already felt that they and the director (and ultimately, the artistic director of the company at large) had been incredibly unfair to me. Apparently, I was not alone - as I made my way to the parking lot, there were others leaving, undoubtedly as disappointed as myself, some heatedly discussing it, some simply shaking their heads in disbelief.
When I got home, I called my Mother and told her the bad news. Her reaction? “How do you F***K up GYPSY”? she asked.
“I don’t know, Mom” I replied. “You’ll have to ask Norman Duttweiler. After all, he’s the producer”