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Bay Area Musicals a Brave Addition to the S.F. Musical-Theater Scene

November 12, 2019

Variety is the spice of musical theater in San Francisco, where it thrives, characterized but not separated by age, size, and subgenre, which runs the gamut from opera to operetta to musicals.  

They range from century-old organizations with budgets of tens of millions of dollars to lively newcomers. The former category includes SF Opera and SF Symphony, presenting Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Wagner’s Die Walküre this week, and The Flying Dutchman at the end of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25th and final season.

At the other end of the scale, along with Pocket Opera, SF Lamplighters, Opera Parallèle, SF Playhouse, 42nd Street Moon, and others, there is the generically-named Bay Area Musicals, beginning its fifth season this week, meeting the daunting challenge of Gypsy.

(BAM has meant Brooklyn Academy of Music for many proud decades, but now there is another meaning for the acronym in San Francisco.)

Jule Styne’s 1959 musical, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — set on Arthur Laurents’s book, which is based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs — is about growing up with the original and worst imaginable stage mother. Most of the show is taken up by the awful performances of Rose’s children, who then, as they grow, are forced to pretend to remain her “baby stars.”

The late New York Times critic Clive Barnes described Rose as “bossy, demanding, horrific,” and Walter Kerr allowed that she is a “monster” but should be liked and understood. Sondheim himself said of Rose: “The fact that she’s monstrous to her daughters and the world is secondary .... She’s a very American character, a gallant figure, and a life force.”

Close to a spoiler, Ben Brantley of the Times, calling Rose a “mythic character,” described how “she is traditionally presented as an armored tank on autopilot, which finally crashes only minutes before the final curtain.”

The challenge then for BAM Artistic Director Matthew McCoy, who staged and choreographed Gypsy, and for the large cast, including several children in major roles, is to present the product of Rose’s single-minded obsession as a worthwhile subject, not just a caricature.

In addition to Ariela Morgenstern in the “Ethel Merman role” of Rose, the BAM production is also carried by Emma Berman as Baby June and Tia Konsur as the adult June (Gypsy Rose’s sister, the actress June Havoc), Chloe Fong, 13, as Baby Louise, and Jade Shojaee as the adult Louise, the character of the memoir’s writer.

Most of the big familiar songs of the show are belted out by Rose (“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) or chirped by Baby June (“May We Entertain You”) or sung plaintively by Louise (“Little Lamb”), but there are also musically complex and outstanding passages, such as the duet for June and Louise — “If Momma Was Married” — a high point in the performance by Konsur and Shojaee.

The music is conducted by Jon Gallo at the piano; the onstage band consists of two trumpets, a trombone, reeds, violin, banjo/guitar, bass, and percussion.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].