By GUY D’ASTOLFO
The Youngstown Playhouse will kick off the year with what could be another season-opening smash: “Gypsy.”
The musical comedy (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) is based on the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee but focuses on her domineering mother, Rose, who guided her career.
Often described as the greatest American musical, “Gypsy” is full of songs that have gained a permanent hold in the mainstream, including “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and “Let Me Entertain You.”
Mary Ruth Lynn, executive director of the Playhouse, stepped in to direct “Gypsy” after the original director had to bow out. She talked about the production in this exchange with The Vindicator.
Q. Directing “Gypsy” was not originally on your to-do list. When did you step in and why? And how have you handled the other obstacles in your path, such as the loss of your costumer?
A. My dear friend Donna Downie was slated to direct “Gypsy.” The inclusion of this show in the season came about as a project with Liz Rubino, who has a long history here at the Playhouse. (Rubino) came to me with the show, and Donna was at the head of a very short list of potential directors. After (Downie) came on board, she learned that she had been hired to head up the theater department at the new performing-arts high school (in Youngstown), and she found it necessary to step down from directing “Gypsy.” At such a late date and already in the rehearsal process, I had no other options, so I stepped in to the director’s position.
Losing Cherie Stebner, our costumer for the past two years, has been a real blow to our creative team. We made a valiant effort to find a costumer for the show but without success, so we have all pitched in to do what we can. We have pulled many items from our inventory, and have Dana Bozuk on board to help with alterations and building a few of the items that have to be created. Some of our cast, like our strippers, have generously built their own costumes for the show.
Q. Give us a brief overview of the story.
A. “Gypsy” is not so much the story of the stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, but rather the story of her mother, Rose, the stage mother of all stage mothers. Rose is a domineering woman who wanted to be a star but was held back by her own family. She is determined that her youngest daughter will have the fame she never had. The story begins with Rose taking her two girls, June and Louise, and their Vaudeville act on the road. Rose had dreams of making June a star, but after many years of being on the road and being abused by her mother, June leaves, running off to marry one of the boys in the act. Rose is now left with Louise, the lesser doted-on daughter, to recreate the act. Unfortunately, Louise isn’t the performer June was, and Vaudeville is beginning to lose its popularity. Herbie, Rose’s love interest and the act’s booking agent, gets the act booked into a theater that turns out to be a burlesque theater. As the troupe is packing to leave, Rose overhears a conversation about an act that isn’t showing up for the performance. Rose volunteers Louise for the act, and Gypsy Rose Lee is born. Rose attempts to control her daughter’s act, but Gypsy has blossomed and finally stands up to her mother, who is left in emotional distress and has a breakdown. Gypsy takes on the care of her mother in later years.
Q. The production has an excellent cast, led by Liz Rubino, James McClellan and Natalia Hagan, who was in last season’s mega-success “Chicago.” What is the lineup?
A. The major roles are Liz Rubino as Rose, performing with us through special arrangement with Actors Equity Association; James McClellan as Herbie; Natalia Hagan as Louise/Gypsy; Rosie Jo Neddy as June; Snezana Jelic as Baby June; and Cody McCormick as Tulsa.
I also have an amazing creative team on board: music director Anthony Ruggiero, set designer James Lybarger, light director Lesley Brown and choreographer Colleen Chance.
Q. Having a seasoned and versatile performer like Liz Rubino for the role of Rose must have been a key to this production.
A. Having Liz as a part of this production is certainly key to making it work. This role is probably the most demanding female role in the Broadway musical repertoire. It is an acting role, not just singing. It requires an actress of range, depth and the ability to reach the audience, for in spite of her failings, Rose must touch the audience and make them understand who and what she is and why. This role demands a huge voice and great vocal stamina as it was written for one of the greatest belters in the history of Broadway, Ethel Merman. Some other legendary actresses who have taken on the role are Patti Lupone, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler and Tyne Daley. Liz is most definitely able to handle this very complicated and challenging role.
Q. What special arrangements did you have to make in order to use Rubino, who is a professional (Equity) actress?
A. Because Liz is Equity, it was necessary to work out a contract with the Actors Equity Union. We were fortunate to have a sponsor help with this added show expense, and Actors Equity worked with us to arrive at the most cost- effective way to make it all happen.
Q. Last season started off so strong with a sold-out run of “Chicago.” It seems like history might be about to repeat itself, because there is a lot of buzz heading into “Gypsy.” Will “Gypsy” knock them dead like “Chicago” did?
A. “Chicago” took us all by surprise as it had been a long time since a show sold out all performances. I do think this show has the potential to be another big hit. Our cast is superb, and the show itself is a huge name and is filled with fabulous music. “Gypsy” seemed a perfect choice for our season opener given its name appeal and the cast that was assembling. Having an Equity actress as our leading lady has added to the buzz out there. Our ticket sales are very brisk, and although we aren’t sold out yet, the phones are beginning to ring off the hook.