Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Rose without thorns

For once, the printed word got it right - local reviewers have been generally correct in their complaint that Stoneham's Gypsy is hobbled by Leigh Barrett's much-anticipated star turn as Mama Rose. Vocally, of course, Boston's top diva turns in another performance to sing about, but dramatically, Ms. Barrett seems to have been tripped up by an innate urge to please, combined with her own expertise at intelligent introspection - which, of course, Mama Rose notoriously had none of; instead, this stage mother/monster should push her way through Gypsy via blind ambition and sheer force of will. Rose may indeed have loved the objects of her ambition, daughters Baby June (who became the actress June Havoc) and Baby Louise (who would metamorphose into the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), but maternal feeling was not what drove her - and this grim fact is the curdled core of Gypsy, a poisoned valentine to not just vaudeville, burlesque, and perhaps all of show biz, but to the maternal bosom as well.

The show's lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, of course, had a famously horrific mother too ("Foxy" Sondheim), so he clearly understood Mama Rose's subconscious agenda (Sondheim once wrote a thank-you note for a piece of china that ran, "Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother's head?"). The author of the show's book, Arthur Laurents (with whom Sondheim worked closely), whitewashed the real-life Rose Hovick (who shot one person dead, and attempted to kill Baby June's fiancée) to deliver a brassy anti-heroine tailored to the take-no-prisoners persona of Ethel Merman. Sans Merman, of course, the question of how likeable Rose should, or can, be, is always pertinent to any production of Gypsy, but still, she should never be ingratiating, as Barrett too often makes her.

Barrett's sympathy with daughters June and Louise is likewise misplaced; what Sondheim and Laurents understood is that Rose's mania for vicarious stardom came with a catch: once she reached her goal, and her girls did become stars, they were of no use to her - instead, they became reminders of her own personal failure. Indeed, as adults, June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee would only communicate with their mother through lawyers; her last words to Gypsy were ""Wherever you go, whatever you do, I'll be right there. When you get your own private kick in the ass, just remember: it's a present from me!"

Ah, yes - wherever you go, whatever you do - with his usual perversity, Sondheim pulled those lines right into the upbeat anthem "Together, Wherever We Go" which graces the second act of Gypsy. This was, however, only one of a dozen inspired choices; not for nothing is Gypsy generally considered the last of the great book musicals: along with a tight book and an indelibly rendered star role, it's studded with memorable Jule Styne melodies (and Sondheim lyrics), including "Let Me Entertain You," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," and of course "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

A burlesque "tribute to Christmas" in Gypsy. For a taste of Gypsy Rose Lee's actual act, see the post below of her routine from Stage Door Canteen. (Photo by Stephanie Moskal.)

And the Stoneham cast generally does well by the show's numbers. Barrett's belting on "Roses" is sublime, and as Louise, up-and-comer Eve Kagan is quite affecting in "Little Lamb" and "If Mama was Married" (alas, we never sense her own dawning pleasure, though, in becoming a star - even a burlesque star - and how that translates into a triumph over Mama). The famous "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," always a highlight, is particularly hilarious here, as delivered by Vanessa Schukis, Shannon Lee Jones and Rebecca Zaretsky, and the show is likewise stopped by William Nash Broyles with "All I Need is the Girl." There are other good performances (including a subtle turn by Scott H. Severance as Mama Rose's perennial consort, Herbie, and vibrant dancing from Andrew Barbato, Tristan Viner-Brown, and Phil Crumrine), but director Caitlin Lowans never keeps the show on a tight rein - particularly the children's numbers - and so it sometimes feels unfocused, even community-theatre-esque (particularly on its bare-bones set). Still, its high points offer a sense of what Gypsy is all about - and given the disappointing general opening of the season, for some theatre fans that may be enough.

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