Risks pay off nicely in festival's `Gypsy'


theater column


"You Gotta Get a Gimmick" is the strippers' creed in the musical Gypsy, and no one expresses it better than Lynda McClary in the Maryland Arts Festival's production. Nor is the philosophy restricted to performers - director/choreographer Todd Pearthree has brought his own smart gimmick to this production as well.

McClary plays Tessie Tura, a minor character but the dominant singer in Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's comic "Gimmick" number. She's also an over-the-hill, overweight stripper who introduces Gypsy (at that point called Louise) to her bump-and-grind art.

McClary has appeared in numerous productions around town. But bedecked in deliberately unflattering, bare-midriffed garb, a wig and as much makeup as she has worn in all of her other performances combined, McClary is unrecognizable. She has also never been funnier - or braver - than she is as she struggles to readjust her wayward butterfly costume or to instill some street smarts in her dressing-room mate, Kathryn M. Lyles' wet-behind-the-ears Louise.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information supplied to The Sun by the Maryland Arts Festival, a performer and her character were incorrectly identified in the caption of a photograph that ran with the review of Gypsy in Thursday's Today section. The caption should have said that the young actress shown with Tiffany Walker Porta's Rose was Hannah Rosenthal as Baby June.
The Sun regrets the error.

Director Pearthree has taken some risks himself with this production. Inspired by Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs about growing up with the ultimate stage mother, Gypsy - which has a script by Arthur Laurents - is a show-business story. That's where Pearthree's gimmick comes in, though it's probably unfair to call this highly effective concept a gimmick.

Pearthree and set designer Ruben Arana Downs place all of the action on the stage of a vaudeville theater. The set includes a changing array of posters that announce - and in some cases comment on - each scene. For example, when Louise's sister June (Lauren Spencer-Harris) leaves the family act, the title reads, "Terminal - Omaha," and when the act is mistakenly booked into a burlesque house, the title changes to "The Bottom - Wichita."

Although Lyles never quite conveys the style and confidence that Gypsy finally acquires, Tiffany Walker Porta is confidence incarnate as Gypsy's mother, Rose. Porta, who has a powerhouse voice, portrays Rose - the show's true protagonist - as an overbearing, unstoppable force.

It's a performance that's so unforgiving, however, that Porta makes it a little too easy to dismiss Rose as crazy. Michael Himelfarb delivers a highly sympathetic portrayal of Rose's love interest, Herbie, but his meek, good-natured character doesn't stand a chance against Porta's single-minded, relentless Rose.

Yet Porta's larger-than-life Rose clearly belongs on stage, and Pearthree's concept keeps her there. There is one other significant feature to Downs' set design - a further indication of the insight underlying this production. An illuminated sign at the back of the stage says, "Vacancy Rooms." In literal terms, it refers to the unending string of rooming houses and hotels where Rose has raised her two daughters. But figuratively, the sign seems to refer to Rose's heart, which is empty of everything but the unmitigated will it takes to ensure that at least one of her girls grows up to be the star Rose never became. As gimmicks go, the sign says it all. Or, to borrow a term from Tessie Tura, the sign - along with much of this production - has "finesse."

Gypsy continues through July 22 at Towson University's Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Tickets are $25. Call 410-704-2787 or visit towson.edu/maf.

Lloyd Richards

Lloyd Richards, the groundbreaking director who died last Thursday on his 87th birthday, will be remembered as the man who shepherded Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun to Broadway and who discovered and nurtured August Wilson. Those achievements, combined with the fact that he was the first African-American to direct a drama on Broadway, would be more than enough to assure his place in the annals of theater history.

But Richards was also dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre (both from 1979 to 1991). In addition, he was artistic director of the O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference from 1968 to 1999.

It was in this third capacity that I knew him. As a faculty member at the O'Neill's Critics Institute, which runs concurrently with the Playwrights Conference each July in Waterford, Conn., I listened to dozens of Richards' precurtain speeches, explaining the O'Neill's mission and modus operandi to first-time audiences.

That mission, under Richards' guidance, was devoted to serving the playwright. Although big-name actors frequently perform in the conference's staged readings, Richards never let them take curtain calls. The applause - like every other aspect of the program - was for the playwright alone. And, in his three decades at the O'Neill, Richards didn't just nurture playwrights, he nurtured a system of new-play development that became a model for similar programs nationally and internationally.

The list of playwrights who came to maturity under his tutelage is impressive. Besides Wilson, there were Christopher Durang, David Henry Hwang, Arthur Kopit, John Patrick Shanley and Wendy Wasserstein, to name a few. The loss of Wilson, Wasserstein and now Richards within eight months is an incalculable triple blow.

Wilson, who went on to work with other directors, had often described Richards' relationship with him as that of father and son. When Richards died last week, many playwrights - indeed, a good portion of the American theater - lost a father figure.


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