Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Musical fable, 'Gypsy,' ready to entertain at Civic Theatre in Allentown

Long before reality TV shows glorified the obsession of personal fame and fortune by its subjects, there was a ruthless stage mother, Rose, who pushed her two daughters, Louise and June, over the edge in show business.  That backstage tale, based on the real lives of unrelenting stage mother Rose Thompson Havoc and her two daughters, Louise, a famous strip-tease artist who became known as Gypsy Rose Lee, and her younger sister, June, was material for the multiple Tony-winning, legendary musical, "Gypsy," back in 1959, starring Ethel Merman as Mama Rose. What has made this musical open on Broadway for five times can be experienced beginning Friday, when the Civic Theatre of Allentown kicks off its 2012-13 season with "Gypsy."

Civic's artistic director, Bill Sanders, also director of "Gypsy," refers to the musical as one of his favorites since age 18, when he choreographed a production of it for Reading's Genesius Theatre. He also performed in it as Tulsa, the hoofer who elopes with sister June.

Sanders said he's seen every incarnation of "Gypsy," all except the Broadway original with Ethel Merman because that's the year he was born. He's experienced the role of Mama Rose portrayed by Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone. Now the vision of what he has wanted for so long has become a reality with who he has wanted for the Civic stage.

He has hand-picked his leading lady for Mama Rose as Traci Ceschin, whom he calls "a powerhouse." Ceschin, who captured the Allentown Arts Ovation Award in 2011 for her versatility in performance, appeared in several Civic productions, including "Godspell," "Seussical the Musical," "Titanic the Musical," and "The Full Monty." She also appeared in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" for Muhlenberg College Summer Music Theatre.

This will be Ceschin's first time portraying Mama Rose, a role she said she's always wanted since she saw the Broadway revival of "Gypsy," starring Tyne Daly back in 1991.

"There have been so many amazing women who have played the role," Ceschin said, "and they've all put a little bit of themselves into it. Bill (Sanders) wanted me to be Traci. It will be more about the scene than the song."

Playing alongside Ceschin in the role of Herbie, the agent-manager, will be Wayne Gmitter. Ceschin and Gmitter portrayed husband-and-wife Edgar and Alice Beane in Civic's production of "Titanic the Musical" a few years back. Gmitter, who also saw the Broadway revival of "Gypsy" with Tyne Daly, said it's been his "bucket list" to play Herbie.

Sanders said Gypsy Rose Lee was barely 20 when she performed her first strip tease. He said he was fortunate to cast 19-year-old Muhlenberg College sophomore Morgan Reilly in such "a fascinating role. It's a love story between Rose and her mother," he explained. "They were so connected. Rose becomes a star, but she made a sacrifice."

Reilly said she's loved the musical "Gypsy" since she saw the Broadway revival starring Bernadette Peters as Mama Rose. "It's a different role for me to play," she explained. "I'm used to playing the ingénue and starting as a quiet girl. But a stripper! It's exciting and terrifying, but I love it."

Reilly was only 5 when Sanders directed her in a Civic production of "A Christmas Carol," as a member of Bob Cratchit's family. The Parkland grad went on to deliver outstanding performances in her high school productions of "Les Miserables," "Godspell," "Aida" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." She also performed in "Hairspray" for Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre this past summer. She was recognized as Most Valuable Player at the 2011 Freddy Awards ceremony held at Easton's State Theatre, being the most nominated student (eight nominations) in the Freddy's 10-year history during her high school career. The Freddy alum also worked "Backstage at the Freddys," assisting 69 News Sunrise anchor Eve Tannery.

"Gypsy" has a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jules Stein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Familiar songs that have become American musical standards include "Together Wherever We Go," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Some People,"  "Let Me Entertain You," and the climactic "Rose's Turn." It has been said by many professional songwriters that this could be the best score written of any musical in American theater.

The film version of "Gypsy" was released in 1962, starring Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose and Natalie Wood as Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee.

"This show relates so much to ambition and thwarted ambition which covers the gamut of everyone in the country," Sanders said. "The show reflects the American experience because we are conditioned to expect something from the American Dream. However, the hollowness of wasting time and experiences for money and fame ultimately does not matter."

Musical direction for "Gypsy," which runs through Oct. 27, is by Justin Brehm. The cast includes Meredith Lipson as June, Deena Linn as Electra, Marie Ann Sutera as Tessitura, Patricia Welle as Mazeppa, and Matt Varvar as Tulsa. Jason Sherwood is set designer, and Will Morris is technical director and lighting/costume designer.

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World-class pianist and Steinway solo artist Fabio Bidini joins the Reading Symphony Orchestra in ringing in its 100th season on Saturday at 8 p.m., with an opening night performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center. Conductor is Andrew Constantine. The symphony also will perform Weber's Overture to Oberon, as well as Beethoven's Symphony No. 1.

Bidini began his musical career at age 5, and was one of the youngest graduating students from the prestigious Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome. This young-generation pianist has worked with many of the top symphony orchestras.

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International best-selling author and Lehigh Valley resident John Grogan, who penned one of the most memorable tales of man's best friend in "Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog," will present a talk and book-signing on Saturday at 1 p.m., at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown.

In addition to speaking about "Marley & Me," which went on to be a major motion picture in 2008, starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, Grogan also will talk on his second bestseller, "The Longest Trip Home," a revealing account of his childhood and growing up. With his trademark blend of humor and pathos, Grogan traces the living journey each of us must take to find our unique place in the world.

The Allentown Arts Commission paid Special Recognition to Grogan in 2009, with an Arts Ovation Award for his literary contribution of "Marley & Me."

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SATORI presents a Daniel Pearl World Music Days event, celebrating the power of music, promoting tolerance, and inspiring respect for differences, on Sunday at 2 p.m., at Temple Beth El in Allentown. Music for flute, clarinet and strings will include Quantz, Kuhlau, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shostakovich and Beethoven. A reception will follow the concert.

Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped in 2002 and murdered at the hands of extremists in Karachi, Pakistan.

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Three talented teens from Italy known as Il Volo ("flight") will take the stage of Easton's State Theatre on Monday at 8 p.m. The singing trio currently is opening for Barbra Streisand in her tour, which included the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The young lads were introduced to the U.S. when they appeared on "American Idol" with their rendition of the Neapolitan standard, "O Sole Mio." Last fall, they filmed their first PBS special at Detroit's famed Opera House.

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