Carrie McNulty returns to the Wagon Wheel Theatre to play Rose in ‘Gypsy.’ Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Carrie McNulty returns to the Wagon Wheel Theatre to play Rose in ‘Gypsy.’ Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Act II always delivers the punch to a musical or play, and that is certainly true for Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of the American classic “Gypsy.”
In Act I, the audience gets character and story development that allows them to feel invested in what’s happening on stage so they want to stay for the second half. However, audiences leave the show feeling elated or upset because of what occurs in the story in Act II.
On opening night Wednesday of “Gypsy,” the second half was what turned  a good production to a memorable one. There were certainly entertaining moments in Act I, but it was in Act II when the emotions and story started busting at the seams. The fluff was gone and the dark brutality of reality started seeping in.
“Gypsy” is based on the 1957 memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee.
Driving the musical from beginning to end is Carrie McNulty as Rose, the ultimate and perhaps original “stage” mother of June and Louise. After her six-year hiatus from the Wagon Wheel stage, it’s certainly a pleasure to watch McNulty perform in a role that she was destined to play. Who else could deliver lines like “Don’t forget to write your mothers for money,” and not only make it sound serious but also funny at the same time?
In the first half, McNulty gives her best musically for the song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” She then extraordinarily delivers “Rose’s Turn” at the end of Act II. Those two numbers in particular show what the Warsaw audience has been missing with McNulty’s absence since 2008.
Tony Humrichouser returned to the theater this summer to direct McNulty and “Gypsy.” He last directed “The Nerd” in 2013. Whatever he and McNulty did together in rehearsals for this show make the role of Rose seem written for her.
Of course, McNulty needs strong performers as her daughters to help her pull it all off, and she gets that with Faith Delp as Baby Louise, Rachel Eskenazi-Gold as Louise, Ellie Irwin as Baby June and Jillian Slade as June.
Irwin’s performance is reminiscent of a young Shirley Temple. She’s cute and fun on stage, especially in her performance of “Let Me Entertain You,” the song that later becomes Gypsy Rose Lee’s signature striptease song. In her blonde curly wig and sparkly dress, Irwin proved with her talent that she was the girl for the role.
Baby Louise is the older of the two daughters, but early in the musical she’s treated like a second thought. Louise gets stage roles of Uncle Sam or half of a cow. Rose wants June to be a star, neglecting Louise until June abandons her and the vaudeville act.
Delp plays the role of Baby Louise perfectly so that you feel sympathetic toward her. You can tell she’s the second fiddle and she’s learned to accept that early on in life.
When the two girls get older – somewhere in their teens or early 20s – Slade and Eskenazi-Gold bring their roles’ personalities even more to the forefront. June is a spoiled, self-centered Mama’s girl, while Louise continues to play the submissive role to her mom and sister.
Louise does become more and more like her mother in that she’s always trying to make the next dollar while Rose is always trying to make her girls famous because she never achieved that dream for herself. Once June is out of the picture, you notice Louise’s personality become stronger and Eskenazi-Gold slowly starts carrying herself on stage as such. The weakness is shed and Eskenazi-Gold begins to command the stage.
Eskenazi-Gold played Cheryl Ann in “Catch Me If You Can,” the previous show at the Wagon Wheel, but her performance in “Gypsy” is where she finally gets and deserves the attention. She sings well, and hits “Gypsy Strip Routine” right on the head. The number also requires Eskenazi-Gold to change costumes six times in a short amount of time and she looks stunning in each of the gorgeous Stephen R. Hollenbeck gowns.
“Gypsy” is rich in female roles, but Matthew Janisse as Herbie makes his mark in the musical. Janisse played a number of roles during the 2013 season, including that of Shrek in “Shrek, the Musical.” As Herbie, the mousy boyfriend of Rose and talent agent for June and Louise, Janisse makes you mad that the character doesn’t have a backbone. Then once he does get a backbone, you feel bad for him because his dreams are crushed by Rose’s lack of empathy.
There are a lot of supporting roles in “Gypsy,” and each actor in those roles give a strong foundation for the leads to work with throughout the show. Of special note is Rico Lebron as back-up performer Tulsa, especially with his performance of “All I Need is the Girl”; Sarah Pothier as the dimwitted Agnes; and Kristin Yasenchak as Miss Cratchitt.
Then there are the burlesque women who unfortunately don’t show up until Act II. Again, another reason why Act II makes “Gypsy” entertaining.
Jennifer Dow plays Tessis Tura, Katie Finan is Mazeppa and Christiani Pitts is Electra. Based on their performance in these roles, someone could write a whole show around them. Dow is campy fun, Finan is intimidating and Pitts literally and figuratively lights up the stage. If the movie “Burlesque” was made with these spectacular actresses instead of Cher and Christina Aguilera, it would have done better at the box office. And the laughs would have been more and intentional.
Again, the costumes – awesome. I’ve seen modern burlesque shows in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne over the last few years. They don’t have anything on Hollenbeck’s costumes or the three ladies’ performances in “Gypsy.” If Hollenbeck doesn’t have his own line at Macy’s, he should.
Overall, I was more impressed with Act II of “Gypsy” than the first half, but if you’re thinking of spending the money to go, I say go.
My rating of “Gypsy” (out of four): 3.
Tickets for “Gypsy” at the Wagon Wheel range from $15 to $34. Discounts are available for college students and on designated performances for seniors. For more information, visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org or call the box office at 574-267-8041.