The 1959 musical Gypsy has cemented its status in worldwide popular culture forever. But just how “true” was this distinctly American story which titillated New York City audiences for 702 performances, inspired countless revivals to this day, was adapted into a theatrical movie in 1962 and a TV movie in 1993, inspired the name of the iconic Manhattan hotspot Rose’s Turn, and made classic showtunes of such songs as Some People, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, and You Gotta Get a Gimmick? The oft-dropped subtitle of the musical itself teases that the story was at least partially fictionalized: Gypsy: A MUSICAL FABLE. Even the most idealistic experts on musical theater lore can best describe Gypsy as “loosely based” on the life of its titular character: the performer born Rose Louise Havoc who became burlesque icon “Gypsy Rose Lee”. So, again, just how “real” was Gypsy?
Playwright Doug DeVita knew that the backstory behind the musical was equally, if not more, intriguing than the show itself. He explores the fascinating backstory of the Gypsy mystique with Fable: A Fable About a Musical Fable, an intensely entertaining play which largely focuses on the perspective of another character in the show’s legendary family: June Havoc. Havoc, an accomplished actress, dancer, author, mother, philanthropist, and stage director in her own right, was a part of her Mama Rose’s vaudeville act until running away and eloping at age 16– a plot twist which would become a pivotal scene in Gypsy the musical. June Havoc would continue in show business, appearing on the stage and on both the big and smalls screens until she retired, even playing a pushy stage mother herself in the 1980 cult classic Can’t Stop the Music. Her big sister Gypsy Rose Lee would achieve a very different kind of fame, becoming an “exotic dancer” (Never say “stripper”…) and a groundbreaking persona in the world of burlesque– although Gypsy herself would have preferred the term “ecdysiast”. DeVita’s Fable explores the family drama that took place behind the scenes– when sibling rivalry, egos, and the quest for a certain legacy formed a struggle between (1) telling the whole “truth” versus (2) telling an entertaining story.
On May 26 and May 27, 2022, Fable— a 2021 Eugene O’Neill semi-finalist– enjoyed its first public reading in New York City’s Open Jar Studios, directed by Richard Sabellico with stage directions read by Assistant Director Jason Brantman. After greeting the crowd with, “Hello, everybody. My name’s Doug. What’s yours?!”, DeVita reiterated that the play was “not a documentary” and reminded us that June, Gypsy, and Mama Rose all had the tendency to, shall we say, dabble with “alternative facts”. He added, “But this was THEIR version of the truth!” This is echoed in the play, when Mama Rose (played by Jana Robbins) declares, “All three of us are liars. And all three of us are pretty good liars!” Fable opens with the now 95-year-old June Havoc (played by Joy Franz). She is wheelchair-bound and possibly senile, still engaging in passionate conversations with her long-deceased Mama Rose (“I’m your mother, dear. You’ll NEVER get away from me!”, Mama tells her.), and still embittered about being overshadowed by Gypsy her sister and Gypsy the musical. (“That musical! Must they keep reviving it?!”) Soon afterwards in Fable, June’s nurse transforms into, sure enough, the statuesque Gypsy Rose Lee herself (played by Emilee Dupré). June is transported back to her 40’s (and now played by Haley Swindal) and the audience is also transported back to the 1950’s, when producers had serious interest in bringing Ms. Gypsy Rose Lee’s story to Broadway. The central issue becomes whether June will sign a release to allow the plans to move forward. The personality differences between the two sisters becomes a major factor: While June is purportedly hellbent on telling the “truth” and repeatedly calls her older sis “a cheap vulgar burlesque dancer”, Gypsy takes the same perspective that she took with her famous stage act: just giving the audiences what they wanted to see. When asked about depicting her journey into burlesque, Gypsy– a self-proclaimed storyteller– declares, “Oh, darling, I have given so many versions of that story. Why don’t you make up your own? Just call the show ‘Gypsy’ and I won’t care about the rest!”. The way that Dupré so deliciously delivers that line truly establishes Gypsy Rose Lee’s charismatic aura– at least, the one that made her such a darling in the media. Of course, Mama Rose is always making her larger-than-life presence known, letting both the younger June and the elderly June, via dreams, know that it’s always “Rose’s turn”, even gloating that the musical is
mostly all about… well, ROSE!
The interactions between three strong women– June, Gypsy, and Mama Rose– are enough to have Fable hold its own as entertainment, offering both searing backstage drama and laugh-out-loud humor. The main plot motivation behind these over-the-top characters, however, ultimately cumulates with a question: June Havoc is offered $20,000 and a one- and one-half percentage of the royalties from Gypsy the musical… but will she sign that contract?! The audience does eventually find out, but not before the whole issue of “truth” in entertainment is put into some perspective by the play’s FOURTH over-the-top female character: Ethel Merman, also played by Jana Robbins. “The Merm” has many of the best lines in Fable. One of those lines towards the play’s conclusion arguably says more about showbiz than a 250-page Merman biography could say… but not without Merman’s well-known affinity for the F bomb.
As two women with similar genes but very different personalities, Emilee Dupré and Haley Swindal nail it as Gypsy and the younger June respectively. Joy Franz is full of pathos and dimmed bravada (but not without moments of humor) as the older June, with her legacy of marathon dancing being brought up as a recurrent theme in the play. Jana Robbins does delicious double duty as both Mama Rose and Merman, offering the actress the chance to masterfully portray TWO larger-than-life divas. Lest we forget, there are also two male players in this showbiz saga: David Sabella as Jerome Robbins (“I’m DIRECTNG it!”) and Hans Friedrich as Arthur Laurents (“I’m WRITING it!). With a cast that includes the characters of Gypsy Rose Lee, Mama Rose, and Ethel Merman, Sabella and Friedrich more than hold their own against these powerful ladies. Their power play is an absolute pleasure to watch, with Sabella-as-Robbins rivaling Jana Robbins-as-Merman’s F-bomb count.
Doug DeVita’s Fable: A Fable About a Musical Fable is definitely one worth telling– again and again!