Cast Perfect

The Country Dinner Playhouse confuses me. Just when I've got the place written off as old-fashioned and out of it, its operators come up with a really good show. Not just pretty good for dinner theater or "Well, at least the leads are talented, even if the supporting cast isn't," but just sit-back-and-enjoy-yourself good.

I had a great time recently at Gypsy. It helps that the songs -- music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim -- are clever, original, tuneful and sometimes touching, but good songs aren't always enough. They can be overshadowed by bad sound or annoying performers. And this is a pretty hoary musical. I can barely remember a time when I didn't know most of the numbers by heart. I used to sing "Some People" loudly when I was annoyed with my parents: "Some people sit on their butts/Got the dreams, yeah, but not the guts/That's peachy for some people, of one hundred and five..." So how could the Country Dinner Playhouse bring this old chestnut alive?

First off, the production feels far tighter than usual: I didn't notice voice-distorting sound problems; the costumes fit better; the set changes are swift and ingenious. Rather than fill the stage with meaningless movement, Troy Rintala keeps his choreography clean and specific. It's often funny, and it shows the dancers off well. But the key ingredient is the casting.

In case anyone has forgotten, Gypsy is the story of the ultimate stage mother, a woman so focused on living through her children that she's oblivious to the fact that they are separate and vulnerable people. Rose is determined to make her Baby June a star. The act she concocts, featuring June and the child's reluctant sister, Louise, is an agglomeration of bits and pieces from every dumb child act in vaudeville. As the years pass, Rose recycles the same songs and lyrics and attempts to disguise the children's increasing maturity. Along the way, she takes up with Herbie, a onetime agent; she also falls in love with him. But vaudeville is dying, and the girls are restless. June escapes as soon as she can. Louise discovers she loves performing and eventually becomes a famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee.

The original Rose was played by that iron-sided belter Ethel Merman, but director Paul Dwyer has chosen to cast against type. His Rose is Susan Dawn Carson, a sympathetic actress who makes the relationships among Rose, Herbie and the children genuinely loving. Carson doesn't blow the roof off on the big numbers, but this is offset by the feeling she brings to such gentler songs as "Small World" and by the emotion that tears at her final solo. In a way, the fact that you like the character means that her selfish actions surprise you, placing her ugly narcissism in stark relief.

Herbie is a defeated has-been, completely under Rose's thumb, but Marcus Waterman gives him a sad integrity that makes him the moral center of the play. There's genuine chemistry between Herbie and Rose; they feel like real people, and this breathes life into the well-worn plot.

The playhouse has actually found some child actors who are a pleasure to watch. Brityn Martin is thrillingly and charismatically obnoxious as Baby June, emphasizing her high kicks with shrill, triumphant squeals, and Melanie Cannioto is a sweet, shy Louise.

Nancy Sullivan, who plays the adult Louise, is another find, an actress who can look by turns drop-dead gorgeous or goofy as a kid. Sometimes I thought she was overacting a bit -- the smile seemed too broad, the responses too facile -- but then she'd exude real, clear feeling and disarm me completely. Amy Board does a good job as the grown-up June, a young woman longing for independence but still forced to deploy the tics and squeals of her younger self at her mother's command. Rob Costigan is charmingly light on his feet as Tulsa in "All I Need Is a Girl."

Some parts of the production are still a little clunky. I know the strippers' "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" number is comic; I know Gypsy was written in the still-prudish late '50s and set in the 1930s. But did these strippers have to be not simply sexless, but almost clownishly anti-sexual? I imagine even the Playhouse's most traditional patrons could handle an actual bump and grind. But then perhaps I've missed the latest bulletin from Colorado Springs.

It's a bit disorienting, this two-step between amateurish acting and real class that the playhouse has been performing, but I'm hoping Gypsy is the beginning of a trend.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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