Review: 'Gypsy' successfully bares bawdy, burlesque world

No one epitomizes the ambitious stage mother better than Mama Rose, mother of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Mama Rose is immortalized in the 1959 musical "Gypsy," based on Lee's own memoir about her mother.

Directed by Mary Doveton, the sassy, comic, tender story plays this month at Lawrence Community Theatre.

Rose (Annette Cook), determined that her daughter Baby June (Erin Jansen) will be a star, pushes her daughters on to every two-bit vaudeville stage. Acting as the back-up dancer for her sister, Baby Louise (Amelia Weil) spends much of her youth dressed as a boy or hidden in a cow costume because she doesn't have any "talent."

As the younger girls, Jansen and Weil are charming and real crowd pleasers when they and the newsboys perform one of the first renditions of "Let Me Entertain You." The children and adult chorus do some notable singing and dancing and, as Tulsa, Gabe Murphy's solo number is a dancing highlight.

The older June and Louise (Jennifer Forman, Christa Danner) find themselves still living out Mama's ambitious dream. Their manager Herbie (Doug Wasson) tries to keep the peace while romancing Rose and booking the act. Wasson plays Herbie with easy comic sympathy; he and Cook have several touching scenes, especially their bitter parting in Act II. Forman is a bubbly, exuberant June; she and Danner have a lovely vocal blend in the comically poignant "If Momma Was Married."

When June gives up on the act and runs off, Mama turns her high-octane ambition toward making Louise the star. When the act is booked in a burlesque house, Louise learns from the strippers that "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" in order to be a hit. As the strippers, Carol Brueggeman, Jill Troupe and Aisha Wolgamott are themselves a hit in this well-known number.

When Louise goes on in place of the missing headliner, her innocent look and "ladylike" tease captivate the audience; she finds her "gimmick," and a star is born. Danner sparkles as Louise, moving easily and convincingly from tomboy to glamorous stripper.

Annette Cook's Rose is appropriately aggressive, charming, bitter or pathetic by turns. She reveals the complex mother the audience loves, hates and secretly understands. Cook's fine performance of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" illustrates Rose's aggressive optimism, even though she "was born too early and started too late" for a show business career. Cook's edgy rendition of "Rose's Turn" shows what kind of a star Mama could have been.

The entire cast sings uniformly well, although as individuals they are occasionally overpowered by the instruments. Jule Styne's music is a tour-de-force, ably executed by the theater musicians under the direction of Judy Heller. Barbara Wasson's nifty choreography and Cook's costume design are production highlights.

Although there were some technical problems on opening night, and some of the more complicated set changes were a bit slow, Jack Riegle's splashy set designs enhance the performance space and include a splendid lighted runway for Louise's burlesque number.

The show continues through June 20 at the theater, 1501 N.H. For tickets, call 843-7469.

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