Encore Michigan

‘Gypsy’ at Farmers Alley comes up roses

Review October 08, 2017 Bridgette Redman

KALAMAZOO, Mich.–There’s one thing Gypsy has to have to succeed—a strong Rose who can command the stage, fill the auditorium with her singing and own every emotional moment.

Farmer’s Alley has that and more with Mary Jo Mecca who is so powerful she makes you forget she is acting. She grabs you by the heartstrings and makes you understand why Louise (Stephanie Maloney) and Herbie (Michael Ehlers) are so enraptured with her and why it is nigh impossible to break away from her.

From the moment she starts singing “Some People,” explaining to her father why she has to get her and her girls out of Seattle, you know you’re in for something special. She has a full voice that is filled with emotion and she hits every note with precision and strength. Rose bowls over everyone and Mecca never hesitates or shies away from every choice she has in front of her. She is simply irresistible.

“Gypsy” starts out with Rose as the consummate stage mom, pushing her girls into a vaudeville show. She calls them Baby June and Baby Louise. Baby June (Carly Koch) is clearly the star, full of charisma and sparkle while her sister (Anna Morris) seems uncomfortable in the role and doing what she does just to make her mom happy. Both Koch and Morris play these roles well and make it clear that their age doesn’t keep them from performing as well as their older counterparts.

Rose takes them on the vaudeville circuit along with four boys whom she never pays but keeps promising stardom. As they perform their newsboy act, Director Kathy Mulay and Choreographer Melissa Sparks replace the child ensemble with the teen ensemble, still costumed the same and singing the same.

Along the way she meets Herbie and convinces him to become their agent. June (Katelyn Langwith) and Louise may have their own dreams and desires, but seem helpless to overcome their mother. Herbie is madly in love with Rose, but can’t get her to put him above her star aspirations.

Ehlers and Mecca make a fantastic team. So much of what Ehlers has to do is done with expressions and silences. He has to communicate Herbie’s frustrations without ever giving them voice and he manages to do this quite well. The two of them have such charisma and such a strong bond that you want to see them succeed and their scenes are packed with emotional power.

Maloney’s task as Louise is no small feat either. She has to grow and change. Despite being a talented actress, she has to present Louise as inept for much of her time on stage. It would be easy for her to be overshadowed by Mecca, but instead, she is the perfect foil. Maloney makes Louise’s love for her mother real—and makes you understand why she does things she doesn’t want to do. Her transformation is a sight to witness and Maloney handles it extremely well.

Everything about this production is professional. Mulay takes this classic musical and infuses it with power. The cast is large, but everyone is fully committed to it. She gets fine performances from the cast of children and pays attention to each person’s role, making sure everyone is telling the same story.

She is also the show’s costume designer (assisted by costume coordinators Donna McKenna, Elaine Kaufman, and Jettie Noyes), which is an impressive feat in a show that not only has 28 people to costume, but many of them wear multiple costumes, sometimes changing into several different ones in a single scene. They’re all period costumes including those especially designed for vaudeville and burlesque.

Steve Hodges does the wigs and hair design, which is an important part of helping the actors age and move through different looks as they perform. He adds to the 1930s look of the show.

Kristen Martino’s scenic design is intelligent and striking. She knows just how to build a set so that they can make the numerous set changes quickly without ever having to pause between scenes. In a show that is three hours and ten minutes long, this is crucial. She flies in set pieces and rolls in pieces that are intricately detailed, even when they’ll spend only a brief time on stage. Such things as the kitchen in Seattle or the Chinese restaurant in New York are fully designed to immediately set the stage. She finds a clever way to set up a theater so you can see back stage areas, dressing rooms and on stage areas without having to make a lot of changes.

Jody Badalamenti does an excellent job with a wide variety of props—from Louise’s birthday presents to suitcases and burlesque gimmicks. She fills the stage with everything the actors need, never making them have to fake it because the prop is insufficient.

Cindy Hunter directs the 10-piece orchestra and the singers, doing so through a television monitor at the back of the auditorium. In what has become a rarity, the orchestra performed the full overture before the show and at the beginning of intermission. In a show filled with as many well-known songs as “Gypsy,” it’s a treat to hear such fully orchestrated performances.

She also made sure they struck the perfect balance. The orchestra was large and provided a rich, lush score, but they never overpowered the singers. The singers were miked and sound designer Garrett Gagnon made sure everything was done with precision and expertise.

“Gypsy” is a long show, but it is filled with iconic music and incredible performances. Led by Mulay, this cast and crew makes it clear why it is an enduring classic, especially when put into the hands of such a talented group.

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