Come to church, and see the strippers
In the pews with Gypsy Rose Lee
by Bondo Wyszpolski
If you’ve never seen a live striptease, you may want to head over to the Manhattan Beach Community Church.
Well, let’s couch this another way. The church theater’s spring production is “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. It’s considered one of the big musicals of the 20th century and often is revived to great fanfare.
This local production is being directed by Lawrence A. Moreno, with choreography by Jeannine Barba and vocal direction by Paula Kelley. Kelley also plays Mama Rose, the pushy mother of Louise, better known as Gypsy Rose Lee (Rose Kreider), and “Dainty” June (Anna Dippery). Michael Thorpe is Herbie (manager, Mama Rose’s love interest), Bob Manning is Mr. Goldstone and Cigar (burlesque stage manager), and Victoria Alfvin is a showgirl and a mother, as well as this musical’s assistant producer. All named here because they’d agreed to sit down and talk up “Gypsy” and ultimately why we should storm the box office and be sure to see it. She whispered in his ear
“I chose the show because it was one of my favorites since I was a child,” Moreno says. “It was one of the first soundtracks I got as a musical.” That’s also when he began falling in love with the work of Stephen Sondheim (Moreno was in the group’s production of Sondheim’s “Company,” staged just last year).
Moreno goes on to describe the show. “It has a lot of ups and downs. It’s not one of those really feel-good-type plays, but it does make you think.” While showbiz may be a glamorous concept, Rose and her two daughters had to struggle to make their way into the limelight. “Gypsy” isn’t really a Cinderella kind of story.
Jeannine Barba should be a household name by now, at least among local theatergoers. For many years she appeared on stage with, among other companies, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities. Lately she’s been adding the title of choreographer to her resume:
“I’m also playing Elektra, the stripper who lights up,” she says. “This is my fourth production of ‘Gypsy.’ I’ve been in it at Kentwood Players, the Huntington Beach Playhouse, and the Norris Theatre.
“But then I decided, as I’m starting to get older, that choreography is kind of becoming my thing, too.” So a couple of years ago she choreographed “Fiddler on the Roof” for the Aerospace Players. “Now I’m feeling my oats,” Barba adds, having gained more confidence. In this instance, once the cast was assembled, she began to tailor the dancing to their abilities. And she assigned Anna Dippery (who plays June) to be the dance captain.
Dippery heard about the show because she’s a member of the church. But that’s not her main qualification, of course: “I got a dance background from college and I acted in this church, in this community, when I was younger. Then I went away for college, acted in college and then I came back.” Clearly, she’s putting what she learned in school to good use, but now we’ll be the “professors” grading her.
Turning to Rose Kreider, she’s asked, Is there a lot of dancing in your case as well?
“No, fortunately not,” she replies. “I don’t have much of a dance background. This is actually my first production in this area, in California.” Kreider moved here from Maine. “I heard about the auditions because I was singing in the American Martyrs Church Choir and guess who was there? Larry.” Apparently, Moreno was putting the word out that he was casting for “Gypsy,” and it paid off since he was able to recruit Kreider for one of his leads, and the title role at that.
“Like any other musical,” Moreno says, “you put out flyers for the audition and then you cross your fingers and hope to get some really great people.” Finding the actor, finding the part
Most directors won’t ever let on that they weren’t able to get certain actors they’d been hoping for, but Moreno is pretty forthright about the realities of trying to assemble the perfect cast. And if you can’t land a desired actor or actress? “When that happens you have to go back and look at people you’ve worked with (often) a long time ago. Or even boyfriends that they might have, or girlfriends.” And this elicits a hearty round of laughter. But he also admits that it’s not easy to dismiss someone who’s already been cast if they’re not working out. And yes, this did happen here, but because Jeannine Barba and Paula Kelley have such strong connections throughout the local theater community he was able to find a replacement and thus put together a satisfactory cast and crew.
Kelley, in fact, recently directed “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Surf City Theatre in Hermosa Beach, and this is one reason why Michael Thorpe was brought on belatedly to play Herbie, although he’d already signed on as the lighting designer. Thorpe’s done lighting for several other shows, but he’s also worn the actor’s hat from time to time, and it’s pointed out during the conversation that he played the title role of “Oliver!” when he was ten.
Jokingly, Thorpe now speaks of the challenge he faces of being up on stage as well as lighting it at the same time. If we see someone racing back and forth from the stage to the lighting booth, we’ll know who it is. Kelley steps in and says that this was sort of the same situation as last fall, when Thorpe was pegged as Surf City’s lighting technician and then also agreed to take over when one of the two male leads had to bow out. “Mike,” she says, “he’s our go-to.”
As for Kelley herself, she’s had her hands full leading vocal rehearsals as well as boning up on the life of Mama Rose and converting that knowledge into a convincing onstage character.
“I read Gypsy’s memoirs, and I’m now reading a biography of Rose,” she says. “What I wanted to do was to try and play the real Rose rather than Ethel Merman, who the part was really written for, and so I wanted to delve into who Rose was as a person.”
Kelley then points out that “Gypsy,” although based on Rose’s daughter’s memoirs, is about 25 percent accurate… and 75 percent fable. “I guess it’s to make it an interesting story, right?” Nonetheless, “They really had a colorful life, that whole family. A very interesting family.”
And did she share what she learned with Dippery and Kreider.
“Yeah,” Kelley says. “We talked about this a lot.” And why raise an eyebrow?
“I actually postponed reading about Gypsy, her memoir,” Dippery says, “and only read about June, because there’s two different sides of the story.”
Apparently, but then again, because we’re talking about people with show business personas (and egos), there was a great deal of embellishment.
“You’re so lucky,” Manning interjects. “I couldn’t find a thing on Cigar.
“In the first act I play Goldstone,” he continues, “whom the scene kind of revolves around. But I have no lines, and I don’t dance, and I don’t sing.” Everyone laughs. As for the role of Cigar: “I think Gypsy Rose Lee couldn’t remember his name, but he always had a cigar, so they called him Cigar. And that’s been fine: I get to work with the strippers in the second act.”
There are several other characters in the show, including a few children who appear in the opening scenes, but there’s only room to list one more:
“We have a chihuahua playing Chowsie,” Kelley says. “And Chowsie will be played by Poochini.” (If they’d added a bear, I suppose it would be named Mauler)
The sets for “Gypsy” were constructed by Steve Norris, with Michael Thorpe also being involved, maybe not surprisingly. In fact, if someone says this is a well-constructed show, they might be meaning those words literally.
As we wind down, Manning points out that the theater is “probably the longest running theater in the South Bay.”
“And we’re the best kept secret,” Alfvin remarks. “Which we’d like not to be.”
“Which is why you’re here,” Manning says, putting a certain reporter on the spot.
“One thing I can add about the theater being around for 60 years,” he continues, “is that I think they found a formula, even though it’s kind of secret, that allows a church to do a show about strippers. Where would you see that?”
“Well, they’re very open,” adds Alfvin. “The church is very supportive of the theater, and no one ever questioned ‘Gypsy’ as a project, no one ever questioned ‘Company’ as a project, and we certainly hope that the things we’re considering for the fall, no one will question those either.”
In the meantime, raise the curtain, dim the lights, and let the show begin.
Gypsy opens auspiciously on Friday the 13th in the Community Hall Theater, located in the Manhattan Beach Community Church, 303 S. Peck Ave., Manhattan Beach. Performances, this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Same schedule next weekend. Tickets, $25, available at the door or online by going to brownpapertickets.com/event/3288227. ER