THEATER REVIEW: Tiny ion theatre presents amazing "Gypsy: A Musical Fable"

I am seldom surprised by ion theatre anymore. This barebones, seat-of-the-pants operation has made its name in the past seven years doing fine productions of serious plays by playwrights like Martin McDonagh, Sam Shepard and Neil LaBute.

But now they offer a first: the 1959 Tony-winning “Gypsy: A Musical Fable” at their BlkBox Hillcrest location. Claudio Raygoza and Kim Strassburger direct the show, which runs through Nov. 27.

“Gypsy” is a big, brassy Broadway show, which would seem to be contraindicated in ion’s tiny 49-seat house. And in fact, the production has been reduced to fit the space allotted, meaning the Jerome Robbins’ choreography has been downsized by Ali Whitman and the job of a full-sized orchestra taken on by a single piano, though wonderfully played by Wendy Thompson.

The show at its core is a human one, about a stage mom from hell - Rose (Linda Libby), disappointed in her own stage career and determined to get to Broadway vicariously through her daughters – at any cost.

It requires a terrific actress who can sing. And Libby, who registers everything in her face and gestures, hits this role out of the park – and her voice could probably be heard in Balboa Park, were the door open. No wonder every singing actress since Ethel Merman has wanted to play Rose.

Rose’s problem is that her daughters have other aspirations. June, the younger, (Helena Marie Woods, a fine young talent still in high school), is cute, blonde and fearless, and tagged by mama as a likely star-to-be. (She would later become the actress June Havoc.)

Her elder sister Louise (Katie Whalley) is brunette and painfully shy; mama thinks she lacks talent and shoves her to the back. Louise just wants her mother to notice her.

“Gypsy” is set during the early 1920s, the last decade of vaudeville’s prominence, and much of the show consists of Rose’s attempts to bulldoze her way into bookings for the girls. During one such attempt, she meets Herbie (Andy Collins), a recovered agent who falls for Rose and agrees to act as agent for the act.

But this doesn’t work out any better than the bookings do; Rose is so monomaniacally focused on stardom for June that Herbie (who just wants to settle down) can’t compete and eventually leaves.

When June also deserts with dancer Tulsa (Eric Hellmers), Rose is left her with the “no-talent” Louise (who eventually – and on her own – becomes the phenomenally successful stripper Gypsy Rose Lee). Whalley does that transformation with grace, style and humor – and a great figure doesn’t hurt.

It’s a sad family story, but a whale of a show, with terrific songs by Jule Styne (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and a boffo book by Arthur Laurents. The ion version lacks the big, brassy sound and choreography more space would allow, but the cast gives it the heart it needs to tell the story and the direction by Raygoza and Strassburger make it seem fine just as it is.

The details

“Gypsy: A Musical Fable” plays through Nov. 27 at ion theatre’s Blkbox @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets call (619) 600-5020 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.