Review: Theatre Aspen cast delivers a powerful ‘Gypsy’

Thera Freeman/Special to The Aspen Times
Cassondra James as Mama Rose and Harry Bouvy as Herbie in Theater Aspen's "Gypsy" at the Hurst Theatre.
Graham Northrup/Northrup Studios

Referred to as the greatest American musical, “Gypsy: A Musical Fable” began as a joint project between producer David Merrick and actress Ethel Merman. Merrick read an excerpt of Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs in Harper’s Magazine and approached Lee for the rights.

In 1959, “Gypsy” opened with music by Jules Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. Sondheim initially did not take the gig, fearing he would be pigeonholed as only a lyricist and not a composer, as well. Thankfully, his mentor Oscar Hammerstein convinced him it would be an excellent learning experience.

“Gypsy” is currently playing at Theatre Aspen. Graham Northrup/Northrup Studios
Graham Northrup, Northrup Studios

Spanning the 1920s to the 1950s, “Gypsy” covers the United States from Seattle, Los Angeles and the wilds of Texas to New York as Mama Rose, June and Louise work the waning vaudeville stage circuit.

In Los Angeles, Rose harangues Herbie out of vaudeville management retirement to represent “Baby June and Her Newsboys” and join them on the road.

As time marches on and the children get older, Rose continues to insist that none of them are over the age of 10. But eventually June — Rose’s clear favorite — rejects the infantilization and runs away with one of the boys from the troupe, leaving only a note. Herbie does his best to convince the crushed Rose to give up the on-the-road-hustle and marry him, but Rose quickly pivots all her energy by making Louise the star in her new act, which is remarkably similar to the old one — blonde wig and all.

Even though the new act, “Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes,” struggles more than ever, Herbie manages to book it in a venue. But once they arrive, it’s clear that this is no regular theater, but rather a burlesque house seeking a modicum of wholesomeness to keep the cops at bay. Louise works to convince Rose that they really have no choice but to stay and make the promised money for the two-week contract. Rose not only agrees to stay for the run of the show, but also to marry Herbie at show’s end.

At the end of the run, Rose volunteers Louise to step in for the star burlesque attraction, who is suddenly unable to perform. Disgusted with Rose’s decision, Herbie leaves her. Nevertheless, Rose pushes Louise into her first burlesque role, where Louise transforms from shy to star in the blink of an eye.

Louise, played by Shea Gomez, truly shines in this production. Her delivery of the ballad “Little Lamb” is a gift of tender innocence, showcasing not only her talent for restraint while she must play the mousy sister, but also her connection with the audience.

Opening night is often a time of jitters, but if any of the cast members felt nervous, it was far from evident. This includes young Elle Presutti as Baby June and Katherine Issa as Baby Louise, as they launched into “May We Entertain You.” Cassondra James’ ardent performance of “Some People” as Rose also stands out.

If you go

What: ‘Gypsy, A Musical Fable’
When: Playing select dates, through July 23
Where: Theatre Aspen
More info:

Act two explodes with color, sound and light. Abby C. Smith (as Mazeppa), Marissa Medina (Electra) and Laura Stracko (Tessie Tura) belt “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” to the rafters as they teach Louise all about burlesque. Come for the trumpeting, and stay for the light show.

In the end, “Gypsy” is a story about connection, including the positive and negative intricacies that accompany any given — or chosen — family. As Rose, James leads with manic positivity, never accepting defeat, but, instead, doing whatever it takes to keep the dream alive.

When Louise morphs into Gypsy Rose Lee and becomes burlesque’s brightest star, Rose struggles. James and Gomez’s mother-daughter fight in the dressing room filled the theater with such palpable emotion that the air thickened into an unsettling silence. It drew the audience onto stage with the characters by witnessing a deeply private, and long-time coming, baring of and clawing at old wounds.

When James delivers an impassioned “Rose’s Turn,” it is clear that Rose sacrificed, and pushed, for her children to have what she never attained on her own. Rose anguishes in the parental dichotomy of wanting your children to succeed and having your sacrifices to support them acknowledged. Unmasked and raw, James gives her all in this show-stopping number as her frustration and despair finally come flooding to the forefront, begging for the attention she had always needed, especially after so many people have left her.

“Here comes Mama,” indeed.


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