Based on the real-life memoirs of burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy has been a beloved musical of mine ever since I was 15 and was fortunate enough to be cast in a local production of it. I have seen a number of productions both on stage (including the 2003 Broadway revival with Bernadette Peters) and screen (with the 1993 film version with Bette Midler my favorite). I can honestly say that Signature Theatre‘s current production was, by far, the best one I have ever seen. It was breathtaking, rendering me speechless. Those who know me realize that is a huge feat.
Between an engaging script and two acts of captivating songs, Gypsy is more the story of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, Rose, than it is about her. Although the account of the famous stripper (real name: Louise) and her sister, June, is told—their history as child performers on the vaudeville circuit to June’s running away from home and Louise’s transition from novelty act to burlesque performer—it is only to highlight the journey Rose takes. The quintessential stage mother, Rose foregoes personal relationships, a stable career and home life, and financial comfort so that her children may be stars. It is only when her children and fiancé leave her, their vaudeville careers washed up, and with her life in shambles that Rose realizes all the toiling and strife done in the name of her children were really about fulfilling a dream of stardom for herself that will never come true because she was “born too early and started too late.”
Fortunately for audiences in the DC area, actress Sherri L. Edelen who plays Mama Rose in Signature Theatre’s production was neither born too early nor started too late. Her performance as Mamma Rose was outstanding. Not only is she blessed with an amazing voice, but the acting subtleties she brought to the role provided so much dimension to her character that the culminating musical monologue of her journey, “Rose’s Turn,” in Act II, was genuinely touching and tragic, in a way that made you want to wrap your arms around her and make everything alright. It is easy for actors to simply play the narcissism in Rose, and Edelen chose to play against that, showing the real struggle between her ego and her sincere love for her fiancé, Herbie (played by Mitchell Hebert) and daughters (played by Nicole Mangi and Maria Rizzo). Throughout the entire show, I found myself rooting for Mama Rose, hoping Edelen would be able to successfully find that balance between her own dreams and those for her loved ones, all the while knowing she wouldn’t, but thinking that if anyone could do it, Edelen’s Mama Rose could.
Edelen was not the only standout in Signature’s production. Rizzo, as Louise, is a fine actor whose maturity from a young naïve also-ran to confident, independent headliner was impressive. Also remarkable were Erin Cearlock as Baby June, Vincent Kempski as Tulsa, Nicole Mangi as June, and basically the entire cast. There was not, in fact, a weak link in this show, although special mention should be made of Sandy Bainum, Donna Migliaccio, and Tracy Lynn Olivera as the three has-been strippers Tessie Tura, Mazeppa, and Electra, who not only nailed their number “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” but have some of the greatest roles in all musical theatre.
The standing ovation for these three ladies, and for the entire cast, is well-deserved. The artistic genius of director Joe Calarco, musical director Jon Kalbfleisch, and choreographer Karma Camp was evident throughout, with each line, harmony, time step and scene change well thought out and well rehearsed while appearing natural and seamless. From Kalbfleisch’s musical downbeat to begin the show with a full seven minute overture (overtures being something rarely seen in musical theatre these days) to Edelen’s powerful final glance toward the audience as the show concludes, I found each minute and moment to be enchanting and wonderful. Although there is a lot of great musical theatre in the DC area, it has been a long time since I have had such a great time at the theatre that I hoped it would never end. Everything about Signature Theatre’s production of Gypsy is coming up roses.
Gypsy performs now through January 26, 2014 at Signature Theatre, located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA 22206. Tickets $40-$105. For more information, call 703-820-9771.