“Gypsy” -- A Captivating Mama Rose
By Geary Danihy
“Mama is gonna see to it!”
If you are at all familiar with American musical theater, then you know that’s a line from Gypsy’s first act closing number, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” sung by the indomitable Mama Rose. Well, in the current Sharon Playhouse production of what has often been termed the quintessential musical of the 20th century, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Mama certainly does “see to it.” In a somewhat uneven presentation of this classic, Karen Ziemba rules as Rose in a performance that merits positive comparison to those who have taken on the role: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Better Midler.
The musical, loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, is billed as a “fable” to cover the divergence from actual fact, but although the musical bears the name of the famed striptease artist it is really Rose’s story, a story that creates a portrait of the ultimate “stage mother,” a parent who just doesn’t hover over her progeny, she lurks like a predator in constant search of prey.
In the often chilly confines of the Playhouse (it was in the low 60s outside on opening night but the air conditioning was on), the saga of Louise, the stage-struck ingénue who becomes the queen of burlesque by always leaving the audience thirsting for more, trundles along under the direction of Richard Stafford, who also choreographed the show. The first part of Act One features a lot of kids, and although they are adorable, they really don’t exude the pseudo-sophistication of true Broadway babies, those who entered the world tap dancing, emoting and asking to see their agents.
The adults fare a bit better. Rufus Collins, who plays Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering love interest, handles the dramatics well but is a tad vocally challenged when called upon to sing. Such is not the case with Julia Hemp, who plays “Dainty June,” Rose’s elder daughter (who, in real life, would go on to become the actress, June Havoc). Hemp’s singing voice is clear as a bell, and she performs a lovely duet (“If Momma Was Married”) with Louise (Kyra Kennedy) late in act one.
Then there are the three strippers who show Louise the ropes. Emily Soell (Electra) seems a bit lost as the illuminated stripper, Electra, thought she's more in stride as Miss Cratchitt, a feisty secretary to Mr. Grantziger, owner of a struggling vaudeville house. However, Sara Cline (Tessie Tura) and Carly Sakolove (Mazeppa), have all the right moves.
Another standout performance is that of Alex Dorf, who as Tulsa has his moment in the spotlight when he is called upon to fantasize a dance number: “All I need is the Girl.”
Watching him create the number is Louise, and up until the young woman transforms into Gypsy, Kyra Kennedy is dead on, delightfully awkward and innocent. A problem arises when she is called on to become the stripper, for although her first “strip” on stage is meant to be tentative, immediately after there are series of quick scenes-in-one that are meant to capture Gypsy’s growing sophistication and, ultimately, the reason she became a star. Although the book says it’s so, Kennedy remains tentative and never really captures the allure that brought fame to Gypsy Rose Lee.
Whatever questions or qualms certain performances may engender, they are all erased whenever Ziemba is on stage, which thankfully is often.
This actress knows how to belt out a song in the best Merman tradition, but just as important, she knows how to act. Some critics have likened Mama Rose to the American musical’s answer to King Lear. That might be stretching it a bit, but Ziemba does give Rose a multi-layered depth that lets the woman’s fear and fragility peek through the tough outer shell composed of brassiness and chutzpah.
Whether she is trying to con her father out of eighty-eight bucks (“Some People”), forestalling Herbie’s departure (“You’ll Never Get Away From Me”), rising phoenix-like from the ashes (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) or showing what she might have become (“Rose’s Turn” – which she absolutely nails), Ziemba delivers a faultless, nuanced performance worthy of a Broadway turn (not surprising, since she received the TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award for her portrayal of The Wife in Contact at Lincoln Center Theatre). Her presence and performance make the drive up to Sharon well worth the trip.
Gypsy runs through July 3. For tickets call (860) 364-7469 (ext. 201 in the summer / ext. 100 in the winter) or go to http://sharonplayhouse.org/theatre/tickets/