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Theatre Aspen’s ‘Gypsy’ reaches for tender humanity

Identity, intersectionality play a role in showbiz musical

Cassondra James performs as Mama Rose in a rehearsal for Theatre Aspen's "Gypsy" on Friday, June 17, 2022.
Madaleine Cutone/Courtesy photo

Theatre Aspen’s production of “Gypsy” won’t be exactly like the award-winning Broadway and West End iterations when it debuts at the Hurst Theatre on June 27. 

That’s by design, according to the show’s lead, Cassondra James. She plays legendary show business mother Mama Rose, a role filled in other productions by the likes of Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. Big shoes to fill? Not for James. 

“What I feel is a sense of grace that has been given to me to find who (Mama Rose) is for myself, and to make it my own, and for us to collaborate in making something our own,” James said in a joint interview with director Hannah Ryan and choreographer Hollie Wright. “That’s what I feel. … This is not the same production, and they’re not the same shoes.” 



James is bringing her own identity to the role of Mama Rose, who raised two star daughters —  burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee and actress June Havoc — in the vaudeville era of the 1920s and the years that follow. 

“When I first talked with Hannah, one of the first questions that I asked was whether or not my experience as a person of color would be something that could inform this character — or whether or not she wanted me to show up as the same white woman that we received before onstage,” James said. 




The answer Ryan gave was exactly the one James was hoping to hear. She has found often enough the phrase “intersectionality” in reference only to the idea of having people of color in the room; here was the chance to draw on her experience and identity to bring the character and the production to life, she said. 

“It was a deep sense of fulfillment that I felt in that moment, when Hannah said to me, ‘Yes, I want you to show up, Cassondra,’” James recalled. “‘I want all the things that you know, all the things that you’ve experienced, as a person of color, I want to see those things, I want to have conversations about those things.’” 

“I’m thrilled to be in a room where we have space to play and to explore and to be vulnerable enough to share the things that we know and don’t know, together to make this something different and honest,” she added. 

With that comes a tenderness to a character notorious for her overbearing and high-striving stage-mother tendencies that pushed her daughters into the spotlight. (Reconciliation comes only at the end of the show, and only in some of the iterations of it.)

“I think ‘Gypsy’ is a story about family,” James said. “I think it’s a story about people with a deep sense of desperation, who are striving and surviving and sometimes thriving — people who are trying to find their way in the world and discover who they are and what they really want for themselves, and sometimes they only discover that through other people and their distance.”

Wright, the choreographer, said she feels a “cohesiveness” in the room, as if everyone is breathing the same breath, and that feeling is crucial to the work itself, the time the team has to tell it and “the sensitivity of being a woman and telling the story.” 

“There’s a sensitivity that’s usually, in my humble opinion, not there,” Wright said. “You know, as a woman, what does that mean? What does that mean to have to put your children to work? What does that mean to be such a pioneer? … Rose is not just this one thing, and I feel that there’s so much softness in the room that I don’t usually feel when I watch versions of this production.” 

The creative team is aiming for an organic take on the story of “Gypsy,” a “musical fable” based on the real-life memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Wright said that she wants the dancing to showcase the “humanness” of the performers, to honor an understanding that “vaudeville was very different for people of color,” and to reflect the social dances that made it to the stage. 

And Ryan, the director, said she hasn’t been referencing old productions or videos; the story here is rooted in the book of the musical, and adapted for an “intimate” and “immersive” production at the riverside Hurst Theatre. 

“How do we embrace the space we’re in and make this our own unique approach of this story? … I want to just crack open the script, and look at the people in front of me, and create something together with the text that we have,” Ryan said.

To James, the production is one that creates a shared sense of humanity. 

“There’s a deep sense of humanity in all of the people,” James said. “I think people will walk away from this production feeling that — getting a sense that these people are not the same people that they have met before. …  They’ll get to know (the characters) in a very different way, through some other dimension of their humanity.”

IF YOU GO…

What: Theatre Aspen presents “Gypsy”
When: June 27-July 23
Where: Hurst Theatre near Rio Grande Park in Aspen
Tickets and more info: theatreaspen.org

kwilliams@aspentimes.com


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