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Jason Cadieux as Herbie, Kate Hennig as Rose and Julie Lumsden as Louise in Gypsy, now playing at the Shaw Festival.David Cooper

  • Title: Gypsy: A Musical Fable
  • Book by: Arthur Laurents
  • Music and lyrics by: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
  • Director: Jay Turvey
  • Actors: Kate Hennig, Jason Cadieux, Julie Lumsden
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 7, 2023

Critic’s Pick

With a gorgeously acted, fun but deeply felt production of Gypsy on its hands, everything should be coming up roses and daffodils at the Shaw Festival this season.

The destination theatre company in the garden city of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., finally has a musical on its main stage that really rivals the highest quality productions seen a couple of hours away at the Stratford Festival.

It’s been a long stretch of creaky so-called classics, not-quite-up-to-it stars or directorial visions that miss the mark in the musical-theatre department at Shaw. But director Jay Turvey and a to-die-for set of leads led by Kate Hennig as Mama Rose have simply knocked this one out of the park.

Though there may be something about this story of an American stage mother in the declining days of vaudeville that just suits the Shaw Festival’s sensibility: Gypsy was, in fact, the first musical to play on the main stage back in 2005, and did quite well back then, too.

The 1959 show is, on one level, the origin story of the famous mid-century burlesque dancer and noted wit Gypsy Rose Lee née Louise Hovick – adapted from her 1957 memoir by a dream team of book writer Arthur Laurents (West Side Story), composer Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and legendary lyricist Stephen Sondheim (insert your favourite from his outstanding oeuvre here).

But the central figure is her mother Rose (Hennig). She pushes her two girls, June (Madelyn Kriese) and Louise (Julie Lumsden), as child and then teen entertainers on the vaudeville circuit as that quintessential American art form is on its last legs.

At one tour stop, Rose persuades a retired agent, Herbie (Jason Cadieux), to get back in the business and be her partner in producing and life.

Herbie’s not as willing to exploit kids and steal restaurant silverware as Rose is – but he falls for her and follows her around waiting for the moment when she’ll finally settle down and marry him.

Rose is relentless however. And though she says she’s doing it all for “Baby June” and then Louise, her drive and delusions always threaten to wreck her personal relationships.

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Allan Louis as Jocko and Kevin McLachlan as Georgie with cast members of Gypsy.David Cooper

While I didn’t see that well-regarded 2005 Gypsy at Shaw (in which Hennig first played Rose as the alternate to Nora McLellan), I did catch a pair of prominent productions in London and New York in the intervening years: the 2008 Broadway one directed by Laurents and starring Patti LuPone, and the 2014 West End one directed by Jonathan Kent that won Imelda Staunton an Olivier Award.

At both of those, I left feeling like the bloom had started falling off of Rose – that the musical she inhabits was an overwrought star vehicle with a few two many reprises of Let Me Entertain You and not enough entertainment.

But Turvey’s clear-eyed take helped me understand what didn’t quite work for me about those versions: the paradox of building a Gypsy around a Rose with star quality and attempts to present the material as darker than it actually is.

Hennig is one of the greatest stage actors of her generation, but is able to blend into a background as easily as she is able to stand out. She plays the decidedly unstarry Rose as pushy and off-putting and yet effectively forceful, with an ever-present undercurrent of humanity and a sense of survivorship.

Neither she nor Turvey treat Rose as the “monster” she is often made out to be. Her idea of love may be warped, but she does love her children, herself and show business.

And despite all Rose’s flaws, the character does model how to be an assertive woman in life and in business in a sexist industry. Her offspring learn the lesson to “sing out” well enough that they are eventually able to stand up even to her.

Turvey and choreographer Genny Sermonia do a few subtle things to make sure their production explores the exploitation of show business rather than replicate it.

There are a variety of bodies on stage in the burlesque scenes, for instance, and more bodysuits than exposed flesh. Similarly, when the younger June and Louise (Ariana Abudaqa and Hannah Otta) are on stage, little shifts are made to focus on them as characters over child-star spectacle.

From a production standpoint, costume and set designer Cory Sincennes has come up with crisp, attractive look and a simple set of proscenium arches built around a small, centre revolve that once again proves useful in keeping up the pace (as in last year’s Damn Yankees). The old-timey tunes – throwbacks even in their day – are played with style and verve by a 14-piece orchestra (bigger than what you’ll find in most Broadway pits these days) ably led by Paul Sportelli.

But the key here is the aching acting – not just from Hennig, but Cadieux, who finds lots of complexity to play in the “good guy” Herbie, and Lumsden, who is a lonely and longing Louise and then convincingly blossoms through burlesque. No gimmicks needed for Gypsy when you’ve got three great turns like theirs.