Photo credit Sean McCallon
Bauer Speck Elementary student Ruth Schulte stars as Baby June (left), Sholly Von Stein plays Mama Rose and Flamson Middle Schooler Kaci Wagner stars as Baby Louise (right) in Wine Country Theatre’s “Gypsy.”
Baby June (Ruth Schulte) shines in the spotlight, surrounded by her newsboys, Kaci Wagner and Bailey Bojorquez (left) and Libby and Andrew Higgins (right) as they seek stardom on the vaudeville circuit in Wine Country Theatre’s production of “Gypsy,” playing through December 3 at the Park Ballroom in Paso Robles.
PASO ROBLES – Opening night, as I sat there at my shared round little table with my heavy crystal glass of local Chardonnay, I couldn’t believe I actually found a seat – the Park Ballroom was sold out for Paso Robles’ professional-caliber community theater version of the critically acclaimed musical, “Gypsy,” a story, set across America in the 1920s, of a mother who pushes her two young daughters into performing in a traveling variety show.
As vaudeville acts go out of style, the children grow up while the mom tries desperately to replay the same act while also clinging to a failing theater marketing plan.
Forcing children to do what they don’t want to do … as you can imagine, doesn’t end well.
The favored daughter, June, starring Makenzie Hart, seen in last summer’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” reaches her max, disowns her overbearing mother and elopes, while the neglected daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee (who was once played by Natalie Wood in the 1962 film version of “Gypsy”) sticks around, and discovers the last resort, a burlesque house, is actually really her “thing.”
The story, based on real-life events surrounding burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee and her bossy mother Rose, was directed by Kristen Saunders, an accomplished performer, director and theater advocate with Thomas Grandoli, who also stars as Tulsa, making his debut as musical director. Shirley Kirkes Mar serves as choreographer.
The hits, such as “Let Me Entertain You” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” have been carried through time since the 60s, and they tell quite a story of secret yearnings, pipe dreams and family failures.
Now that it’s 2017, movies and TV shows have shown every bit of skin imaginable, but the Wine Country theater burlesque house scenes are just as fun if not more. There’s just something that never gets old about the part when Gypsy Rose Lee, played by actress Libby Parker, becomes comfortable with who she is as an individual. Her performance makes you sit straight up in your seat. The audience at the Park participated in the hoots and cat calls, Parker teases the audience in her PG-rated strip act, in nothing but that fuzzy white pillow, and then – ooh la la – is covered by only the folds of the stage curtain.
Parker’s fellow strippers were hilarious as well – Janine Elich as the trumpet-playing burlesque strip artist Mazeppa, who apparently learned to play the trumpet for this role, and Debora Schwartz as Electra the stripper, who, in the zaniest hat costume you’ve ever seen, “twinkles while she shakes it.”
I had already heard tales of the decades-long, now-retired drama teacher from Atascadero Middle School Sholly Von Stein would be starring as Mama Rose, or “Momzilla” as the Wine Country Theatre Executive Director Cynthia Anthony calls her “irascible, lovable” character. Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters played her in the Broadway revival Gypsy. Von Stein has been a staple in local community theater, with lead roles in “Guys and Dolls” and “The Sound of Music” and her students throughout the years know her as “Miss Sholly.” Von Stein plays her part delightfully.
For me, as a mother whose philosophy for children is more like “find their passion at an early age, and nurture whatever it is” (even if it’s janitorial services, like my teenager was into for a while), I will never understand how some mothers can play favorites with their children, and so I was not in love with the character of Mama Rose. It was “Toddlers & Tiaras” times 150. Alas, some women will still misbehave and squander their motherhood – as playing favorites and pushing children into what they don’t want to do has been going on for a long, long time. I’m fairy certain Mary did not pressure Jesus into being a prophet but I’m pretty sure Shirley Temple had a mother like Mama Rose. I know plenty of people who were pushed into careers their souls rejected just to please their mothers, so I can imagine the theme was pretty relatable for others in the audience as well.
I was glad Mama Rose’s most talented daughter June quits that life she never asked for and I challenge anyone who has ever felt like the neglected, yet loyal child not to feel broken again after watching this play. The feeling of the play hurts, despite being a musical, but I loved that Von Stein’s excellent portrayal of that selfishly ambitious stage mom pushing her poor daughters into a tired, redundant vaudeville act brought out the fierce advocate in me.
Ironically as well, I was astonished to recognize, as I excitedly flipped through my playbill to place that actor playing the part of “Herbie” – his oh-so-familiar face (wait – is that Sylvester Stallone, or maybe his relative?) up there on stage was the man I met with to advocate for my son’s transfer to the fine arts school – no other than the ultra-compassionate, emotionally diverse San Luis Obispo Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Brescia.
No way! Yes way!
The Superintendent of Schools, the grandmaster of our SLO educational universe, played the huggable, good-hearted Herbie, who put up with the overbearing, impossible Mama Rose and supported and loved her girls – which, could easily be the role he plays in real life. I just hope it doesn’t give him the stomach ulcers his character experienced from the ordeal. On the day-to-day, Dr. Brescia, who, according to the playbill, has been acting in theater productions since the ‘70s, is a big supporter of the arts for our county’s children, which is one of the reasons San Luis Obispo has probably the best schools in California. I was happy to learn that his hobby (in his free time?!) is acting in theater productions. He did an amazing job as Mama Rose’s love interest, and boy, can Dr. Brescia sing!
The 20-actor cast is top rate: including Makenzie Hart, a Cuesta College student as June; born and raised Paso Robles man and PYRAF alumnus Thomas Grandoli as Tulsa; and Geoff Higgins as Uncle Jocko and three other characters. Higgin’s children Libby and Andrew also share the stage as show kids and newsboys. The children in the play made the first act come alive: Bailey Bojorquez (Balloon Girl/Newsboy), an 8-year-old student from Almond Acres, Mara Marcella Avalos (Thelma), Clara Lundy (Dolores/Back of cow), who has been in seven PRYAF productions, Flamson Middle School’s Kaci Wagner as Baby Louise/Newboy and 9-year-old Ruth Schulte as Baby June, who is the youngest of six children and a Bauer Speck fourth grader. Schulte is proof that the PRJUSD art-based pilot program is working.
Other notable acting performances came from Edgar De La Cruz, who played four parts, including Georgie, and Katie Ridge Hofstetter’s “Tessie Tura,” another stripteaser, whose gorgeous body in that skimpy costume made most of us blush.
The scene when the grown children are eating Chinese food for breakfast and young Gypsy Rose is pondering how old she is on her birthday, since her mom uses 10 candles on her cake no matter what age she turns, is touching and painfully sad.
And when characters Rose and Herbie perform at a restaurant in New York, “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” the music and lyrics of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim just hit you where it counts, as dysfunctional relationships seem to rule the roost these days and in former days, or at least until that Rhett Butler “Frankly my dear” moment when Herbie just gives up and says, “I don’t give a damn anymore.” I was rooting for Herbie, and I’m proud of his character for finally recognizing his self-worth.
The performance brought much laughter from the audience. Not only was it full of local talent, but the theme is still relevant, as we think of the repercussions of children being shamed into careers and activities their hearts aren’t jiving with: be it joining baseball when they’d rather draw comics, or being an actress when they’d rather be a farmer, like poor little Gypsy Rose. However, as we know from the play’s happy ending, Gypsy did find her calling, and the based on a real life memoir of Gypsy Rose testifies – it just never had to be so difficult.
Shows are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. until Dec. 3 at the Park Street Ballroom, 1232 Park St. in Paso Robles. Wine, cheese plates and snacks are available for purchase to enjoy before and during the show. For tickets and more information, visit www.winecountrytheatre.com or call 610-0786.
You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.