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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ellen Travolta Paces First-Rate Production Of ‘Gypsy’

“Gypsy” Thursday, July 11, Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre

If Ellen Travolta truly was born to play the role of Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” as certain (famous) members of her family maintain, then on Thursday she got the reward of a lifetime.

The audience leapt to its feet in an instantaneous standing ovation as soon as she walked out for her curtain call. It was a richly deserved tribute to a thoroughly successful performance.

Travolta’s brassy and intense portrayal of Mama set the tone for this entire production, the first in the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s four-show summer-stock season. This was a “Gypsy” filled with humor, savvy and, most of all, riveting emotion.

Travolta brought a just-right tone of New Jersey chutzpah to the role of Mama Rose, who is the show-biz equivalent of a mama bear looking out for her cubs. Sometimes, she comes across as a loving mother who just gets a little carried away. Other times - and this is what sets Travolta’s performance apart from other Mama Roses I’ve seen - she seems truly psychotic in her need to live vicariously through her daughters. At her best moments, as in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” Travolta is actually frightening in her need and her obsession.

Her singing voice owes plenty to Ethel Merman, at whose feet she learned the role in 1961, when Travolta was a bit player in the national tour with Merman. Travolta’s strength is not in staying perfectly on pitch, but neither was Merman’s. Her strength is in belting out these songs with a maximum of soul and emotion, and with a fair degree of tunefulness, also. She does a wonderful job with the smaller, and prettier songs, such as “Small World.”

She shares that song with Jack Bannon, her real-life husband, who is an uncommonly effective Herbie, the long-suffering suitor. Bannon plays this part with such utter ease and command, we forget how difficult it is to play such an outwardly placid character and give him some inner fire.

Jennifer Niederloh has wonderful moments as Louise, the daughter who becomes the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. She is especially effective in the “All I Need Is the Girl” number, in which Tulsa (played well by Micheal Muzatko) fantasizes about having a girl dance partner, and Louise achingly fantasizes about being that partner. This number, as directed and choreographed by Roger Welch, has all of the narrative drive and tension of a good short story.

I’m not certain, however, whether Niederloh was cast perfectly for this part, a not uncommon problem in a summer season in which the same performers have to be fit into four different shows. She seemed uncomfortable as the older and more worldly Gypsy Rose Lee.

The show is filled with fine character roles.

The three strippers, played by Kay Story, Laura Seable and Bobbi Kotula, steal the show in the “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number. Kotula is hilarious as the trumpet-playing Mazeppa, but even better as the officious secretary Miss Cratchit.

Frank Jewett and Eric Englund also do fine work in multiple character roles.

Special mention has to go to the two Junes. Little Kjeisti Cubberly is priceless as the Baby June, batting her eyes at the audience and emitting little Shirley Temple squeals of joy, and Tara Sullivan is equally winning as the older version, still doing the same girlish tricks.

The sets, by Jack Green, reflect the theater’s increasing commitment to quality, not to mention the theater’s increasing budget. The vaudeville-style proscenium border curtain was a nice touch.

The 15-piece orchestra, directed by Holladay Sanderson, hit its stride quickly after a slightly nervous start. Its sound was brassy, raucous and strong throughout.

The only real problem on Thursday night was a scratchy sound system. It reached the level of annoyance several times during the evening.

, DataTimes MEMO: “Gypsy” continues through July 20. Call (800) 4-CDA-TIX or (208) 769-7780.

“Gypsy” continues through July 20. Call (800) 4-CDA-TIX or (208) 769-7780.