Arts Listings

Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse Presents ‘Gypsy’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday March 04, 2009 - 07:00:00 PM

The band in the loft at Altarena Playhouse strikes up the overture with the head for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The curtain is ready to rise on Gypsy, opening with the auditions for a kiddie show in Seattle. This musical is all about being onstage and backstage, featuring the most relentless stage mother of them all. 

The show, by Jule Stine, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, is forever associated with Ethel Merman, not its creators, even though Rosalind Russell starred in the film (with young Natalie Wood as Louise, who transforms into Gypsy Rose Lee) and a slew of other Broadway greats and proud warhorses trouped the part of Rose.  

Altarena is fortunate to have Donna Turner as the monstre sacree of stage moms, who jokes in her bio that she’s recently played another “difficult [showbiz] mother” for Alameda’s old community house, Judith Bliss in that piquant chestnut, Hay Fever. 

She’s well-matched by Lisa Price (who also graced Hay Fever) as her “no-talent” tomboyish sensitive of a daughter, who becomes the sprightly—and faux-elegante—Gypsy, burlesk queen who dropped more wry witticisms than encumbering garments, a triumph of transparent gimmickry, of telegraphy punching the message through as much as any overt move. 

The first act, the “development” of the vaudeville act (more a change of costumes with the same hopeless script, hopelessly delivered), is enough to give anyone who’s ever been on an amateur stage flopsweat just by watching.  

There’s a good use of young performers, the kiddie show contestants (with Balloon Girl Zana Zinn in her maiden role), followed by the newsboys’ chorus (Derek Apperson, Mattias Christensen, Noah Han), backing the beaming Baby June (Olivia Hyntha) and deadpan Baby Louise (Jennifer Beall), who cleverly metamorphose into their older selves (Meghan Ihle and Price) in the beams of a strobe light, midstream in their perennial act, as it switches from juvenile to patriotic to bucolic (Caleb Draper, Youssef Riahi, Nick Hodges, Daniel Guzman as The Farmboys), on to the Carmenesque Toreadorables (Rebecca LaFleur, Erin Little, Nina Dumas, Erin Lucas). 

But it’s with the introduction of the real transformation, Louise into Gypsy, that the show really comes alive in Act 2 with June’s defection (eventually to become actress-director June Havoc), the ramshackle act finding itself stranded in a burlesk house, and Louise entranced by the strippers showing the “no-talent” girl how “You Gotta Get A Gimmick (if you want to have a chance).”  

Some great work here by Paula Wujek as bumping, grinding Tesse Tura, supported by Katie Francis’ statuesque (and illuminated) shimmy as Electra and Kerry Chapman’s upside-down fanfare as Mazeppa. The sextet in the loft (led by artistic director Armando Fox on the ivories) starts to swing lowdown, Rose pushes Louise onstage as a fill-in, and a strutting, knowing rendition of Baby June’s insipid “Let Me Entertain You” takes on new meaning. 

Matt Bealls (as a choice bunch of nerdy emcees, assistants and second bananas) appears onstage with his niece; Scott Alexander Ayres is the dyspeptically good-natured former candyman-turned-agent Herbie, hopelessly in love with Rose till he finally sees the writing on the grindhouse wall, and Tom Leone goes from straitlaced Pop to a hardbitten succession of theatrical hotel and strip club managers. Even managing director Daniel Zilber goes on as the manager of a vaudeville thee-ay-ter (such typecasting).  

And the untold amount of volunteer work behind the scenes showing an “untalented” girl become a pro—that’s showbiz, community theater at Altarena. 



8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through April 5 at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. $17-$20. 523-1553.