When actress Cassondra James closes the first act of Theater Aspen’s Gypsy: A Musical Fable with her rendition of Everything’s Coming up Roses, the audience’s excitement is palpable.
Starring in Gypsy as Mama Rose, James’ rendition of the song – one of the most famous songs in the realm of musical theater – energizes the intimate Hurst Theater as she lights it up with her striking vocals and manic expressions.
The room’s constant reaction to this moment during each performance is from the perspective of Theater Aspen’s Producing Director Jed Bernstein. Because once the show starts, Bernstein said, producers often look at the audience rather than the stage.
“My favorite moments of the show so far have been watching people of all ages react to moments in the show by laughing or crying or being surprised,” Bernstein said. “It’s always the best when you can feel the audience connecting with what’s happening on stage.”
Since Theater Aspen opened its main production of “Gypsy” last week, Bernstein can recount many of those moments where the audience is connected to the story on stage. He described the classic American musical as “timeless” — one worth reconnecting with these days because “there’s something for all of us to get involved in,” the production director said.
Based on the memoir of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy originally opened as a Broadway musical in 1959 with music by Jules Stine and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Spanning the 1920s and 1950s, the show follows Mama Rose, known only as Rose, as she raises her two daughters, June and Louise, desperate for them to make it in show business. Coined as “the ultimate stage mother,” Rose travels the United States with her girls, pushing them to perform, from young acts on the vaudeville circuit to a fortuitous foray into the bawdy burlesque scene.
In revealing “Gypsy” today, Bernstein said it’s ultimately a story about family — specifically, the relationship between a mother and daughter. But also between daughter and father, with a multi-layered dynamic between Rose and her Pop (played by Keith Lee Grant). The sibling relationship is also very much present in Theater Aspen’s iteration; and even lovers – seen with Rose and Herbie’s character led by Harry Buvey.
“I think family is eternal, relationships are eternal, and even though classic entertainment isn’t — it continues to evolve — relationships transcend that,” Bernstein said. “And ‘Gypsy’ certainly connects with its audience differently than it did when it first came out, but no less strongly.”
Bernstein mentioned how Theater Aspen’s multicultural casting decisions for this version of “Gypsy” also contribute to the universality of the story. The series’ three leads are played by women of color – James as Rose, Shea Gomez as Louise and Kayla Goins as June.
The producing director explained how he had already seen the show develop and the cast – a mixed cast of Broadway stars, local kids and all sorts of talent – had gained confidence in their roles. Bernstein emphasized that this particular production has a large group of youngsters with a lot of stage time. These aspiring young performers are treated like professional actors, he said; they stood tall.
“Theatre people say no two shows are the same; every performance is different because every audience is different,” Bernstein said. “It’s very much a two-way relationship, and the actors feed off of the audience’s reaction, the reaction and the presence in the room.”
Other poignant moments noted by Bernstein in the production so far include the choreographed number “All I Need Is the Girl,” featuring Louise and Tulsa (played by Michael Rios); and “If Momma Was Married” — which presents a moment of unity between Louise and June, despite the two sisters’ opposition throughout the story.
And like James’ stellar performance of “Everything’s Coming up Roses” to close the first act, she evokes a similar emotional response in the second-act finale with “Rose’s Turn,” a scene described by Bernstein as possibly one of the most dramatic moments in musical theater.
In this final scene, Mama Rose realizes the sacrifices she has made for her daughters to be stars and the unfathomable losses along the way: June runs to escape; Herbie leaves after seeing Rose push Louise into a burlesque role; and Louise’s ultimate transformation into the strip star, Gypsy Rose Lee.
While no two performances are ever the same, James’ final rendition of this unleashed breakdown and high-caliber song evokes emotion from audiences at every single show.
Theater Aspen’s “Gypsy” will run through July 23 with performances held at the Hurst Theater nearly nightly at select times. Schedule and tickets available at theatreaspen.org.