On Stage: Just as Entertaining as Ever

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Signature delivers in Broadway classic ‘Gypsy.’

Maria Rizzo in Signature Theatre's 'Gypsy.' (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Maria Rizzo in Signature Theatre’s ‘Gypsy.’ (Photo by Teresa Wood)

When the first note of the “Gypsy” overture fills Signature’s MAX Theatre, you can feel the audience settling in anticipation of an evening immersed in one of the great experiences from the golden age of the Broadway musical. “Gypsy” has always been about the music. Signature’s music director, Jon Kalbfleish, understands this and treats the score with the artistry it deserves.

“Gypsy” has been around for a long time. It opened on Broadway in 1959 with an astonishing array of creative talent: book by Arthur Laurents, based on the 1957 memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, and music by Julie Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It couldn’t miss and it didn’t.

Frequently revived, “Gypsy” has showcased a who’s who of powerhouse talents such as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tine Daly and Bernadette Peters on Broadway and Rosalind Russell in the 1962 film adaptation. We know this musical, and even if “vaudeville” and “burlesque” are only words from an almost forgotten era, we understand the universality of this story.

Set in the 1920s as vaudeville is rapidly fading from the entertainment scene, “Gypsy” is the story of the ultimate, obsessive stage mother, Rose, who is driving her young daughter Baby June to become a headliner on the vaudeville circuit. Neither Baby June nor her ignored sister Baby Louise share Rose’s ambition as they grow too old for her juvenile production numbers.

All they want is a normal life and express it in the lovely lament, “If Momma Was Married.” They want her to accept all the marriage proposals from Herbie (Mitchell Hébert), who represents the most stable element in their lives. Herbie’s wistful “Small World” duet with Rose is painfully romantic.

As Rose, the talented Sherri L. Edelen, effectively projects an overbearing, but sympathetic, presence. She has the kind of big voice Styne and Sondheim envisioned when they wrote the score. Baby June (Erin Cearlock), a fifth grader at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, convincingly handles the overacting Rose requires of her in her sappy idea of what appeals to a vaudeville audience.

Ellen Roberts, as Baby Louise, handles the complexity of being the self-effacing backdrop to her sister’s talent. Both Cearlock and Roberts already are consummate professionals with a commanding stage presence.

But in a final break with her mother, a teenage June marries one of the dancers in the act and runs off and make a show business career of her own. (In the true story from which “Gypsy” was inspired, June goes on to become the movie star June Havoc.)

June’s leaving is a setback but it doesn’t hinder Rose’s blind ambition. Hurt and angry, she turns to the previously considered talentless Louise to become her new headliner. She still refuses to see that vaudeville is being destroyed by the new talking movies. As the act goes downhill it is booked into a burlesque house. Rose is angry about that, but when one of the strippers is injured, she sees an opportunity and talks Louise into performing.

It is there that a metamorphosis takes place as an insecure Louise, sympathetically understood by Marie Rizzo, takes to the stage and the legendary burlesque star, Gypsy Rose Lee, is born as Rose’s shaky world of absolute control collapses.

“Gypsy” has memorable musical moments such as the clever, funny “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” sung principally by Donna Migliaccio, one of the veteran Signature performers who hasn’t been seen enough recently, “All I Need is a Girl,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Styne and Sondheim cleverly reprise the Baby June signature number, “Let Me Entertain You” without changing a word and it becomes a perfect strip song for the new burlesque star.

If there was one moment to quibble over with the Signature production it was Rose’s final number, “Rose’s Turn.” It is in that song that you understand what was driving Rose in her obsession for her daughters. On the evening I saw the show — and maybe that is the way it was directed by Joe Calarco — Edelen seemed rushed, dampening the poignancy of that heart-wrenching final number.

James Kronzer’s set design elements were minimal with moving panels and the look of faded advertisements on brick backstage walls and light fixtures that gave the MAX the look of a vaudeville theater. Karma Camp, Signature’s resident choreographer, once again creatively controlled the dance movements on the theater’s intimate stage, especially with Vincent Kempski, one of the boys in the Baby June act whom June eventually marries.

“Gypsy” may have been around for a long time but the Signature Theatre production is an American classic that will never seem dated. Mothers like Rose seem to proliferate and the children they push are successful as June and Gypsy were in spite of them, or because of them.

“Gypsy” continues through Jan. 26, 2014 at Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Ave. in Shirlington, VA 22206. Tickets start at $40 and are available at 703-820-9771 and online here.

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