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THEATER REVIEW / 'GYPSY' : Teasingly Good : Light Opera's move to Granada Theatre is in keeping with a like transition from an old era to a new one on Broadway in the '60s.


There's a certain appropriateness in the choice of "Gypsy" to mark the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's move to its new home base in the Granada Theatre.

"Gypsy" signaled the end of a Broadway era, the last big musical in the Rogers and Hammerstein form, and one of the best (with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, how could it be otherwise?). After the show's premiere in 1959, the innocent spectacle and narrative through-lines of the classic musicals would soon give way to the more complex self-awareness that went with the '60s.

Just as "Gypsy" lay on the cusp of a new sensibility in musical theater when it opened in 1959, the Civic Light Opera opening comes at a time of transition. Though only a few blocks from the company's old roost at the Lobero Theatre, the ornate Granada frames its stage with a formal dignity that demands new levels of grandeur and polish.

While the company has done a creditable job with the production, it's clear there's a lot of growing to be done.

"Gypsy" was of course based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque queen who brought style and sophistication to the striptease. The risque premise makes for an unlikely co-mingling of adult themes and family values, for what concerned the show's creators was a drama of parents and children.

Only in the end is the story of "Gypsy" about the transformation of shy, tomboy Rose Louise Harvick (Tina Lacommare Rance) into the legendary stripper.

Mainly, it's about her mother, the indefatigable Mama Rose (Kelly Britt), who will sacrifice anything to attain her dream of stardom for her children. Not content letting her daughters share the lot of "other girls who cook and sew and sit and die," Rose wants to give them "the whole world on a plate."

Her obsession is funny and heartbreaking at the same time. A fast-talking hustler, Rose is capable of limitless sacrifice--foregoing marriage and stability as she totes her ragtag family from one third-rate talent show to the next. Her determination wins the admiration and devotion of the family's mild-mannered booking agent Herbie (Neil Elliot), who calls Rose "A pioneer woman without a frontier."

Yet Rose's single-minded pursuit of stardom leaves no room for her daughters' independence. It's the suffocating legacy of parents who, thinking they live only for their children, actually live through them.

In a role that was written expressly for Ethel Merman, Britt faces a tough challenge staking out somewhat different territory for Rose. Though she can belt out "Everything's Coming Up Roses" with suitable gusto, Britt's emphasis is more of a shaded performance than a full throttle vocal assault.

The result has both strengths and limitations. In the first act, her subtlety somewhat muddies the central theme as Rose all but recedes into the background. Most prominent in director Mark Lipschutz' staging are the family's corny vaudeville routines, and at first we might mistake the cuteness for a kid-and-puppy show--though a well-executed one. In one of the highlights, the production retains the brilliant onstage representation of time passing from Jerome Robbins' original choreography, where the children literally grow up before our eyes.

The story's more complex dimensions only clarify later on, after the "star" daughter, June (Susan Dohan), deserts the family and out of desperation Rose pushes Louise into the vulgar limelight of burlesque. Stardom finally brings Louise a life of her own, but Rose is left behind to wonder "What did I do it for?"

She finds the answer in her imaginary reflection on stardom, the hauntingly effective "Rose's Turn."

"I guess I did it for me," she realizes in a dearly bought moment of self-awareness. And Louise's acknowledgment that it was her mother's drive that got her where she is completes a circle of generational understanding.

Powerful and well-played as this reconciliation is, the production bears tell-tale signs of the company's rushed relocation to a new facility. The larger, more imposing stage dwarfs the fold-out set panels and begs for more elegance in the painted backdrops than did the more intimate, informal Lobero.

More importantly, the superior acoustics of the Granada are less tolerant of imprecision either in the singers or in Elise Unruh's orchestra.

In its incomplete but promising restoration, the Granada is a classy venue for its incomplete but spirited production "Gypsy."


"Gypsy" will be performed through Oct. 25, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays, at the Granada Theatre at 1216 State St. in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $15-$29.50. Call (805) 800-366-6064 for reservations or further information.

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