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Stage Review

North Shore’s ‘Gypsy’ has its moments

Production raises the curtain on new era for theater

By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / July 12, 2010

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BEVERLY — Searchlights swept the sky, patrons admired the renovated patio, and state reps crowded the stage to read a proclamation as the North Shore Music Theatre reopened under new management last week. It was a triumphant moment for owner-producer Bill Hanney and producing artistic director Evans Haile, both of whom bring significant theatrical experience to their quest to restore this beloved Beverly institution to health.

The crowded house seemed appreciative, too, cheering the new team and applauding the mayor, former honcho Jon Kimbell, and others whom Hanney thanked for helping the theater reopen on a tight schedule. Everyone seemed thrilled to be back in the plush new seats (installed after the disastrous fire that contributed to North Shore’s earlier woes), thrilled to hear that such favorites as Kimbell’s “Christmas Carol’’ were back on the boards, and poised to savor the pleasures of a live orchestra and a professional cast, performing a classic musical on the familiar central stage of the theater in the round.

So it would be wonderful to report that the inaugural production of “Gypsy’’ was an unqualified success. Alas, it would not be true. This production has some entertaining moments — particularly in the comic numbers, such as “You Gotta Get a Gimmick’’ and the future Gypsy Rose Lee’s turn as the front end of a dancing cow — and some finely tuned performances, notably from Kirby Ward as Herbie and Catherine Walker as Louise. But awkward staging, technical glitches, and a two-dimensional performance in the critical role of Rose keep it from fully taking off.

Let’s start with Rose. Vicki Lewis, best known for her television comedy work, has some formidable ghosts to contend with, from Ethel Merman right on down through Patti LuPone. But many actresses have faced this problem and nevertheless found a way to create their own version of this formidable, infuriating, and fascinating creature who is the musical theater’s purest embodiment of its own favorite monster, the stage mother.

Lewis, while she displays a strong singing voice, reduces Rose’s complexities to a two-dimensional caricature. This woman is so hard, so relentless, that we get no sense of why her daughters remain connected to her, and even less why sweet manager-agent Herbie would stick with her so long. Lewis does give her a weird obsession with flicking her skirt up to reveal her thigh-high stockings (and the old-style snap garters that hold them up), but this attempt to make Rose a sexy if aging minx just feels off: oversimplified, out of character, and ultimately a little embarrassing.

Her performance is also pitched way too big for the setting, with flailing arms and bold strides across the small stage that only emphasize its limitations. In her first song with Herbie, “Small World,’’ what should be a sweet and gradual rapprochement between two very different people instead starts to feel like two circus tigers circling each other in a very tight cage.

To be fair, this may be a fault of the direction rather than the acting. Director and choreographer Richard Sabellico has a substantial New York resume, but the weirdnesses of directing in the round often trip him up here. Many scenes are played almost entirely to just one section of the audience, leaving the opposite side looking at the performers’ backs most of the time. At key moments, extraneous performers are left standing at the edge of the stage, blocking many people’s views of the central action.

On opening night, frequent static and rustling from the performers’ body microphones added their own particular note of irritation to the mix. The mikes also seemed to give out entirely a few times, leaving some singers stranded while others kept belting away. Such distractions aren’t always fatal to a show, but if things are already feeling a little unsteady onstage, they can tip the balance the rest of the way.

North Shore seems to have a strong team in place, along with the good will of its community and a longstanding and loyal subscriber base. Now it just needs to devote some effort — and, possibly, some more local rehearsal time — to shaping and polishing the shows that will keep that loyalty strong.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy @globe.com.

GYPSY Musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Directed and choreographed by: Richard Sabellico. Musical direction, Nick DeGregorio. Set, Campbell Baird. Costumes based on the original designs by Martin Pakledinaz, coordinated by Jose Rivera. Lights, Jack Mehler. Sound, James McCartney. Wigs and hair, Gerard Kelly.

At: North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through July 25. Tickets: $35-$65. 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org