Though slow going, Southwestern University's staging delivered old-fashioned splendor and passion

Startin' here, startin' now: Meredith McCall as Mama Rose
Startin' here, startin' now: Meredith McCall as Mama Rose (by Alena Garcia)

Alma Thomas Theater at Southwestern University, Georgetown
March 28

A few years ago, I was involved in a project in which participants were asked to vote on "the quintessential musical." If just one musical's libretto could be included in an anthology to represent all of American musical theatre, what would it be? The results were narrowed down to two contenders: West Side Story, which debuted on Broadway in 1957, and Gypsy, which followed just two years later. Much debate ensued. The eventual winner? Gypsy.

Gypsy first came to Broadway toward the end of what's commonly known as the American musical's "Golden Age," and the recent production at Southwestern University served up much of the splendor associated with the era: a 30-piece orchestra in the pit (yes, 30!), a grand set by designer Desiderio Roybal, gorgeous costumes from Kansas Music Theatre (courtesy designer Thomas G. Marquez), and a cast whose number exceeded that of the musicians. Gypsy is a huge show.

Huge shows often require a huge star, and Austin favorite Meredith McCall delivered in a big way. McCall's vocal placement is just right for the ways in which composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim scored the stage mom to beat all stage moms – and Mama Rose's shoes are no small ones to fill, with Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Patti LuPone having memorably brought the role to life. Other especially notable performances here came from the bubbly Carli Vinciguerra as Rose's star-to-be Baby June, Brandon Baker as song-and-dance man Tulsa, and the energetic choruses of children, Farmboys/Stagehands, and Hollywood Blondes/Toreadorables that perform Rose's acts under her eagle eye.

Director Rick Roemer – well-known to local audiences as both actor and director – framed the story to highlight its "backstage" quality, allowing audiences a peek behind the curtain as a means of unifying the show.

But, as is often the case in theatre, not everything can be sunshine and lollipops. Especially slow tempos caused the production to drag at times, as did many slow scene shifts (several of which were presumably due to the numerous costume changes), resulting in a performance that was quite long and at times labored. On the flip side, there's certainly something to be said for challenging student performers with such a gigantic undertaking. Coordinating as many moving pieces as this show requires is important training for aspiring theatre professionals, and the score isn't the easiest one out there for the musicians to play, either.

Despite being slow going at times, this Gypsy provided some rousing moments. A group of passionate students who feel they've got nothing to hit but the heights is certainly working hard up there, in the supportive company of some of Austin's most seasoned pros.

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Gypsy, Austin theatre, Southwestern University, Rick Roemer, Meredith McCall, Desiderio Roybal, Carli Vinciguerra, Brandon Baker

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