“Gypsy” at Sharon Playhouse

By Tom Nissley

Let’s not forget that in the northwest corner of Connecticut there’s a wonderful summer theater venue called the Sharon Playhouse. They do outstanding productions in a nifty old barn that works perfectly to transport you to a time when summer was a genteel fashion and good theater was a mainstay of how to enjoy it.

“GYPSY,” first produced in 1959, tells the story of the transition from vaudeville to burlesque, focused on Mama Rose (a fabulous Karen Ziemba) and her daughters June (Julia Hemp) and Louise (Kyra Kennedy), as they traveled the country performing in vaudeville theatres with a skit that changed costumes but otherwise was mostly the same: “hello, my name’s June – what’s yours? ‘Let me entertain you!’” Along the way Rose met up with Herbie (Rufus Collins) who joined the troupe as manager and was the man in their lives for most of the story, which moves sweetly to the point where June, all grown up, elopes with Tulsa (Alex Dorf -- a great dancer) and suddenly the focus from Rose becomes Louise.

When Herbie accidentally books them into a burlesque house in Wichita Louise meets friendly strippers who 1) admire her sewing and 2) give her tips about stripping (“You’ve got to have a gimmick”), which comes in handy when the stage manager loses a girl and has to fill the spot quickly. So Louise becomes a stripper whose gimmick is a pair of long white gloves, and takes the stage name of Gypsy Rose Lee. Her final triumph also includes a clear separation from and then some hugs for Rose, who late in life discovers that she did life, as we all must, for herself!

The story of the musical, by Jules Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, is based on the real lives of June Havoc (who lived in both Wilton and Stamford, btw) and her sister Gypsy Rose Lee, who published it as a memoir in 1957. It celebrates stage motherhood, and featured Ethel Merman as Rose. But no old memories are necessary in Sharon’s production. The principal characters are carefully assembled. Karen Ziemba is a solid actress, aging twenty years from curtain to curtain, and singing vibrantly the great songs like “Small world, Isn’t it?” or “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn.” Rufus Collins is a great Herbie. Alex Dorf a fine Tulsa. Julia Hemp and Kyra Kennedy nicely inhabit the roles of the two sisters.

The sets, the costumes, the lighting, and the country theatre ambience are all good too. It’s a long way from some parts of Connecticut, but worth the trip to Sharon for a great “GYPSY.”

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

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