acting press

Signature’s rich and riveting ‘Gypsy’ is D.C.’s finest musical revival in years

 

 

By , Published: December 23

A school of thought has it that “Gypsy” is the greatest American musical of all time. Signature Theatre’s riveting revival offers breath-stopping instruction in why.

Directed by Joe Calarco with emotional intelligence and abiding respect for the artistry of composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents, this palpably lump-in-your-throat “Gypsy” is easily the most accomplished revival of a musical in these parts since Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” in 2010.

Calarco elicits from his cast of 21 a fine feel for the rueful core of this “musical fable,” so far ahead of its time that it lost the 1960 Tony for best musical to two lesser shows, “The Sound of Music” and “Fiorello!” On this occasion, the textured achievements include the deft metamorphosis of Maria Rizzo as Gypsy, who over the course of two hours and 45 minutes goes from reticent wallflower to petal-stripping extrovert, and the manly forbearance embodied by Mitchell Hébert as Herbie, a guy who allows himself to be walked all over until the footprints threaten to obliterate his pride.

And then there’s the terrier-like inexorability of Sherri L. Edelen, who as this production’s Momma Rose gives perhaps the rawest and most wrenching performance of her life on Washington’s stages. Known more for her sardonic than dramatic chops — her wheelhouse is a part like Madame Thénardier in “Les Miserables” — she gives us a vision of Rose as a sad, desperate backstage bully, a restive succubus plundering her daughters’ childhoods for the sake of her narcissistic sense of life’s injustices.

Rose is the Medea of roles for a musical-comedy actress; anyone taking it on must confront the legends that swirl around it, stories about definitive portrayals, often recounted by people who didn’t see them. From accounts of the ur-Rose, Ethel Merman, to tales of the revivals that starred Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly, to the evidence of the so-so film with Rosalind Russell and the awful TV movie with Bette Midler, the voluminous files on this great character make “Gypsy” treacherous leading-lady turf. Just ask Bernadette Peters, whose controversial 2003 turn as Rose on Broadway drew both critical huzzahs and raised eyebrows, about the minefield. (Though Patti LuPone garnered more universal acclaim, and a Tony, courtesy of the Laurents-directed Broadway revival four years later.)

So put aside your expectations of a star-driven “Gypsy” and appreciate the astute portrait of, er, naked ambition that Calarco and Edelen deliver with the estimable assistance of choreographer Karma Camp, an excellent design team and music director Jon Kalbfleisch’s 11-member orchestra. Mind you, there are other examples in this vocally assured production of strong supporting work, most notably by Nicole Mangi as a seething, grown-up Baby June and Vincent Kempski, suavely assaying the chorus boy Tulsa.

Edelen’s chip-on-her-shoulder Rose is small of stature: an ordinary woman of extraordinary nervous energy. The manic edge she applies to Rose’s championing of her daughters’ pathetic vaudeville kiddie act gets at the woman’s truly towering rage. The first inkling comes in “Some People,” a number establishing Rose’s belief in her own specialness. Edelen’s anxious badgering — in this song, for money from Rose’s father — seems appalling yet touchingly human. It’s the toxic mix of Rose’s entitlement and fury that Calarco seeks to harness, as the stage mother drags pint-size versions of Baby June (Erin Cearlock) and Baby Louise (Ellen Roberts) through the indignities of life in the ’20s on show business’s shabby back roads. The misery goes on into adolescence for Mangi’s June — shackled to the role of perky Shirley Temple manqué — as well as Rizzo’s Louise, shunted by Rose into June’s shadow.

The girls’ abject contempt for living under Rose’s thumb is channeled into a terrific rendition of “If Momma Was Married,” a comic song infused with Styne’s rich Tin Pan Alley vocabulary and Sondheim’s irreverence, which is conveyed here rewardingly, with real fire. The number propels us to the astonishing conclusion of Act 1, through Tulsa’s lushly romantic (and Kempski’s smoothly danced) “All I Need Is the Girl” and on to Rose’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

Few musicals manage as scrupulously as “Gypsy” does to fuse story, personality and psychology in song. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” achieves this with a layer of irony, too. Abandoned by June, Rose turns to Louise, the ugly duckling destined to turn into a swan of burlesque — Louise is based on real-life ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee — and sings to her, “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great.” But the song is no cheer from the sidelines. It’s a burst of optimism from a woman whose aspirational potions are all poison.

The bitterness between Louise and Rose deepens in Act 2, the mood lifted a bit by “Together Wherever We Go” and further by the strippers’ anthem “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” performed ripely here by Sandy Bainum, Tracy Lynn Olivera and, in a delicious return to Signature after several years’ absence, the company’s co-founder Donna Migliaccio. Olivera’s visibly delicate condition provides the number with an extra dash of loopy tackiness. Only in the challenging series of scenes charting Louise’s rise as Gypsy Rose Lee does this “Gypsy” feel a little shaky. The illusion of a “classy” stripper peeling off boas and bustiers has to look effortless, an especially difficult task in the close quarters of Signature’s 250-seat space, the Max. As yet, the requisite polish in the staging of Rizzo’s striptease is not quite all there.

But she’s outfitted splendidly by costume designer Frank Labovitz, who also wraps Mangi’s beaming Baby June in rhinestones and Migliaccio in a funny gladiatorial get-up that affectionately evokes horn-blowing Mazeppas of yore. Set designer James Kronzer gives the show a simple, becoming frame, with a bricked backdrop tattooed with vaudeville advertisements. And the feeling of life on the fly and on the road is smartly evoked with just a few rolling set pieces.

This “Gypsy,” in fact, never feels weighted down. It’s as revealingly, restlessly jittery as Rose herself. I overheard someone at intermission say that he didn’t think this Rose was quite as brassy as she needed to be, and it occurred to me that Calarco and Edelen were not worrying too much about the Roses who have come before. Their Rose is a diminutive woman whose paralyzing affliction is the delusion of greatness, a status she could never have achieved. How apt that in the discordant, messy version here of her electrifying final number, “Rose’s Turn,” Rose is exposed as that saddest of showbiz hangers-on, the legend in her own mind.

 

The Laramie Project

By Nelson Pressley,  Washington Post Style Section, Published: October 6

 Tuesday night was supposed to be the media opening for the critically acclaimed show, a docudrama about the beating death of a young gay man in Laramie, Wyo., 15 years ago. “Laramie” is a popular title that somehow is only now getting its professional premiere in the District. The cast features top-flight Washington actors — Holly Twyford, Mitchell Hebert and others. Scrambling, the company members hustled themselves — actors and technicians, but not the show’s large set — and a mere 80 members of their audience to the rehearsal hall at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

The Washington Post

By Nelson Pressley,

“Mitchell Hebert is dapper and twinkly as Pete, the appealing patriarch who died too young”.

The Washingtonian

By Sophie Gilbert

Hébert, always a delight to watch, steals scenes in flashbacks as Bill’s charming, kindhearted father but also in multiple side roles as a doctor, a physical therapist, and a (female) hairdresser.

 

The Washington Post, Published: December 6, 2012

By Nelson Pressley,

“That counters the clichés of Klein’s plot and characters. Goldman casts appealing actors who help the old tropes go down easily, with the spotlight fixed most brightly on Mitchell Hebert’s stylishly evil sheriff. Stack garbs the character in spurs and furs; Hebert takes the cue and does the suave, heartless Bad Guy thing extremely well.”

 

Washington City Paper

Staff Picks

Best Play Not About Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe That Was Totally About Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe

After the Fall
Arthur Miller’s After the Fall premiered in 1964, three years after his marriage to Marilyn Monroe collapsed and about 18 months after her fatal overdose on pills. It’s a powerful piece of self-flagellation about a man taking himself on an Scrooge-on-Christmas-Eve tour of his own romantic sins as he contemplates getting married for a third time. Miller was shocked, shocked at the suggestion he was trafficking in anything as vulgar as celebrity autobiography, but original director Elia Kazan admitted decades later in his own autobiography that he always thought the piece was about Monroe, Miller, and himself. Like Kazan, the protagonist of After the Fallnamed names.

It’s all ancient history now, but Jose Carrasquillo’s November production of After the Fall at Theater J made it all feel like the nagging, insistent present, anchored by extraordinary performances by Mitchell Hébert as the straw-Miller and Gabriela Fernández-Coffey as the not-Marilyn. If we could hear Don Draper’s internal monologue, it’d probably sound a lot like this.

—Chris Klimek

 

after the fall/theatre j

washington citypaper

By Chris Klimek • November 11, 2011

Theare J, Novemebr 2011

“While the entire company is strong, the enterprise rests squarely on the actor standing in Quentin’s Florsheims for every minute of this nearly three-hour ordeal. In this role, Mitchell Hébert tops his superb work in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s recent reprisal of Clybourne Park. Running on from the wings to take his bow after last Saturday’s performance, Hébert looked relieved and exhausted. He flays himself open as fearlessly as any actor I’ve ever seen, implicating us all in his battle to purge hypocrisy from his heart. To watch him in this role is difficult, but just try to look away”.

The Washington Post, Published: November 2, 2011

By Nelson Pressley, 

Mitchell Hebert, in a huge role, is appealingly wry as Quentin, which makes all the self-scolding go down easy.

“Geez,” Quentin mutters to us as he debates giving in to Maggie’s wiggly seductions, “I can’t even go to bed without a principle.” Hebert makes such revelations personable; he skillfully lures us in, rather than fulminating from on high.

 

Metro Weekly

By Jonathan Padget
Published on November 10, 2011

“Hebert is supremely cool and confident as he makes his way
through Miller’s dense thicket of words, ideas and
images. And he even has the panache and physique to
carry off a slim-fitting suit of the era (one of the smart,
spot-on costumes by Ivania Stack)”.

 

clybourne park/remount/july/august 2011 Woolly Mammoth Theatre 201 (remount 2011)

By Peter Marks
Thursday, Jul 28, 2011

Washington Post Staff Writer

Mendenhall and Hebert, in the play’s opening scene, create a breathtaking synergy, as homeowners with far more on their minds than financial gain or convenience as a rationale for selling. And when Hebert’s broken and heartbroken Russ finally erupts, an audience does not care whether his fury is aimed at his neighbors’ pressure tactics or the unfairness of the universe. It’s all one. Letting go of the place, for him and for Bev, is a sort of downsizing of the heart.

“art”

By Nelson PressleySignature Theatre 2011

Special to the Washington Post

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“As Marc, Mitchell Hébert’s near-genius with angst is ideal: Hébert’s perpetually pained expression reads like cosmic heartburn, and each zinger about the art and the friendship is meticulously crafted, a smart bomb of intellectual and egotistical discontent”.

“art”

By Kate Wingfield
Metro Weekly, April 14

“Of course, with a cast of three confined to a set consisting of a modestly sized living room (which cleverly alternates between two of the men’s apartments via a change the wall art alone), the effectiveness of the players is paramount. Capturing his not-quite-as-confident-as-he-seems cynic with flair and flavor is a superb Mitchell Hébert as Marc”.

charming billy

By Celia Wren

Special to The Washington Post

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“And in a brilliantly naturalistic turn that’s funny and moving, Mitchell Hébert plays the contrarian Dan Lynch, who plants a note of skepticism at the funeral meal (he drank side-by-side with Billy for years and his own liver turned out just fine, he announces) and yet later pays expansive tribute to Catholic priests and the way faith can alter the fabric of a life”.

 

around the world in 80 days Round House Theatre 2010

By Nelson Pressley

Special to The Washington Post

“Mitchell Hébert’s Fogg is the calm at the center, delivering the character’s unflappable declarations with wry precision.”

 

clybourne park

By Peter Marks

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, March 25, 2010

“Comedy of this accomplished order requires the casting of commensurate talent, and here Shalwitz’s instincts are impeccable. It’s tough to know whom to single out in an ensemble when all the actors save one are called on to portray two very distinct roles, so let’s spread the applause. As the slowly imploding Russ, the excellent, utterly convincing Hébert has one of his most rewarding parts in a long time.”

 

eurydiceRound House Theatre 2009

By Celia Wren

Special to The Washington Post

Friday, February 13, 2009

“Delectably outlandish as the Stones are, they seem almost staid in comparison to the Nasty Interesting Man, who, it’s implied, is the Lord of the Underworld in disguise. Clad in funereal black and initially seen licking a blood-red lollipop, Hébert gives this figure a mesmerizing freakishness, his voice ranging crazily in pitch, his hands exaggeratedly gesturing to emphasize his words. The actor is equally riotous as the macabre Dennis the Menace-type who peddles his tricycle dressed in a red-velvet tuxedo jacket and knickers, now whining, now issuing bossy orders, now addressing Eurydice in a basso of stomach-churning lustfulness”.

 

peter panOlney THeatre Center 2008

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 27, 2008

“A good deal of the early wonderment comes from Mitchell Hébert, whose charmingly grumpy turn as Mr. Darling forecasts the amiably mischievous Hook he delivers in the show’s long middle act.

If Hébert’s performance is a bit of a scene stealer, that’s okay; with Hook’s dandified vanity and appetite for menace, a little extra is the least an actor can do”.

 

Baltimore City Paper

John Barry
Posted 9/5/2007

Mrs. Farnsworth

“Mitchell Hébert is physically perfect for the role: Smartly attired, imposing, but not swaggering, he radiates confidence in his own social station. That smugness is also at the root of his politely dismissive attitude toward Gordon. Meanwhile, Gordon grows increasingly frantic as he tries to persuade Mrs. Farnsworth that he can rescue her from her husband and coach her with this tell-all book”.

 

Big Love/Woolly Mammoth Theatre

“Hébert pulls off a remarkable balancing act between repulsive male chauvinism and misunderstood masculinity. How wonderfully challenging it is for the audience to simultaneously despise and empathize with Constantine”.

Metro Weekly/ Jonathan Padget
Published on June 27, 2002

 

Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Friel
At the Everyman Theatre through Oct. 17

It’s the end of summer on the Serebryakov estate. The air is getting cooler, and the summer romances, real and imagined, are coming to a close. People begin to wonder how they’re going to make it through another winter. There are two possible options for that: getting depressed or going crazy. Everyman’s version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya leans, successfully, in the direction of the funny farm.

Uncle Vanya

For 25 years, Vanya (Mitchell Hébert, pictured) and his niece Sonya (Maia DeSanti) have been laboring away on the estate, sending their earnings to its absentee owners, Professor Alexander Serebryakov (Dan Manning) and his young wife, Elena (Deborah Hazlett). Now, the owners have returned. Vanya is in love with Elena; the estate’s Dr. Astrov is in love with her as well; the professor thinks Elena wants him dead; Sonya is in love with Astrov; and Elena is unsure what she should do. Simply put, it’s a mess. They love one another, hate one another, want to kill one another, or want to marry one another. But the time and place seem to be permanently wrong.

Everyman isn’t the first theater company to find the humor in this grim scenario. Chekhov himself, though, might not get all the jokes. There’s some winking and nodding in Brian Friel’s modern translation, and there are a few insertions of over-the-top humor that challenge the slow buildup. But the occasional liberties taken in this production are worth it in the end.

Hébert’s fascinating portrayal of Vanya has a psychological complexity that isn’t usually associated with Chekhov. Arguing with his demons, he is helplessly, childishly enraged at his own loneliness. He’s in a desperate search for someone to blame, and eventually he turns on himself. Hébert’s performance lends Vanya an almost ecstatic, Dostoevskian dimension: As he puts on his spectacles at the end and returns to work, we know that he has truly run the spiritual gauntlet.

Vincent Lancisi’s artistic direction gives the play a lurching, sometimes arrhythmic quality that fascinates, though it sometimes disturbs the larger sweep. In an initial scene, for instance, Astrov and Vanya go on a wild bender that seems straight out of Animal House. So much for the slow buildup.

It’s difficult to believe that this is quite what Chekhov had in mind, but after a century of being lyrically melancholic this Uncle Vanya is manically depressed. So yes, this is Chekhov for the 21st century, minus the Prozac.