To open its fifth season, Bay Area Musicals staged Stephen Sondheim’s seminal musical, “Gypsy” before a dusty white brick wall. Audience members were treated to one of the most famous show business stories ever told — that of the infamous stage mother, Rose.
The show follows Rose and her two kids, Baby June and Louise, as Rose attempts to make them stars. Based on the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous 1940s burlesque performer, and penned in part by the most prolific name in Broadway, Stephen Sondheim, the show is known as a paradigm of classic musical theater for a reason.
The young Baby June (Emma Berman) seemed like the second coming of Shirley Temple with a perfectly high pitched voice and cloyingly girlish giggle to match. Echoed in Tia Konsur’s performance of June as a grown-up, both performers portrayed the character as bottled, constructed and conflicted all at once.
To step into the shoes of Rose is to step into a role played by some of the biggest names to ever grace the Broadway stage. From Ethel Merman to Patti LuPone to Bernadette Peters, the legacy of the role of Rose is as powerful as that of the woman herself. Ariela Morgenstern delivered a fabulous performance with electric charisma and an attitude to match.
Morgenstern’s performance of Rose, however, was so explosive and powerful from the first moment of the show that it left very little room for growth. While a softer initial portrayal could have allowed for the final songs of each act — “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” — to play as moments discordant with the loving, selfless mother Rose seemed to be on paper, they instead felt very expected and on-brand for a mother endlessly self-serving from the start.
Some of Morgenstern’s strongest scenes were when she dropped some of the presentational elements of Rose. One such example was when she watched the performance of “Dainty June and Her Farmboys” from the wings, softly mouthing the words and moving her hands around to the tune of the song. In that moment, it felt as though Morgenstern had entirely melted into the role of Rose and the two had become inseparable.
Rose’s dog, Chowsie (Teddybear Nguyen) stole every scene he was in, setting a new bar for professionalism among canine actors, entirely docile and adorable all the way through.
The fantastic performers onstage were accompanied by an equally phenomenal band upstage, conducted by Jon Gallo. The audience was treated to an overture before the show even began, evidencing the high caliber of what was to come.
In terms of costumes, Brooke Jennings did a spectacular job of fitting each performer in perfect period clothing. During the “Let Me Entertain You” reprise, complete with striptease after striptease, Louise strutted the stage in everything from a floor-length, emerald green sparkling dress to a pink corset and matching pink tulle skirt.
Group numbers such as “Mr. Goldstone, I Love You” and “Dainty June and Her Farmboys” stole the show, flexing an endlessly strong ensemble featuring standouts such as Jean-Paul Jones, Juan Castro, Benjamin Nguyen and Phillip Leyva. The boys in the ensemble brought both comedy and talent to the roles, with dance numbers that made a splash. The cast in general excelled in its dynamic chemistry with one another.
During the final number of the show, “Rose’s Turn,” the much anticipated “ROSE” marquee shone just as brightly as could be anticipated as Morgenstern shimmied and kicked in front of the glowing floor to ceiling letters. Despite the limiting budget that comes along with local theater, Bay Area Musicals put on a show for musical theater lovers both new and old to enjoy. From the period costuming to the stellar vibrato of Morgenstern’s belt, by honoring the source material, Bay Area Musicals succeeded in the first show of a season that’s just beginning.