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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

We can't quit because we're a flop, Louise. . .but let's walk away a star!— Mama Rose

Karen Ziemba photo credit: Randy O'Rourke
An enduring staple of the American Musical Theatre, Gypsy , An American Fable is playing the summer season at The Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut. Headlined by the Tony winner Karen Ziemba, the popular score under musical director Joshua Zecker-Ross and a nine-piece orchestra brings to life the story of famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and one of the greatest archetypical stage mothers of them all — Mamma Rose.

Originally a star vehicle for Ethel Merman when it opened in 1959, Jule Styne, at the request of Merman, wrote the music with lyrics supplied by a reluctant Stephen Sondheim. The book by Arthur Laurents is a loose adaptation of the 1957 memoir of the famous Gypsy Rose Lee imbued with the emotional tale of life on the vaudeville circuit of the early 20th century.

The story of the indomitable Rose and her two daughters, the talented Dainty June (Julie Hemp) and the shy, often ignored Louise (Kyra Kennedy) follows the family as they struggle to create and maintain a stage act that will support them financially and catapult them to Rose's dream-driven obsession of success. In "Some People" she tells us exactly what she feels about a predictable life and lays out her plans for escape from her miserly father and humdrum world; ". . .anybody who stays home is dead."

Ziemba dominates the stage with a forceful, sometimes shrill, overbearing Rose. Her face reveals every manipulative stratagem as she sugarcoats her plans. The infantilized girls, who never know their real ages, star in cornball, hyped-up patriotic acts, one more terrible than the last, as Momma plots and claws their way through the seedy, exploitative small time show biz world.

When the avuncular Herbie (Rufus Collins) enters as agent and love interest, "Small World" serves as the couple's vehicle to both initiate and cement their ties in what will become a long-suffering, one-sided relationship. The self-serving Rose makes use of him and everyone who can pave the way to stardom. Collins' kind and patient Herbie is a terrific contrast to Rose's conniving arrogance.
From the moment the famous "Sing out, Louise" is uttered by Rose from the audience (actually, not in the original script but written in during early rehearsals) all of us are fascinated by this misguided, frustrated, some have said horror of a mother. But Rose's secret sorrow and fear of constant desertion beginning with her own mother is reflected in her pathetic whine ". . .why do they always leave me?"

This is a meaty, powerful role played by such notables after Merman as Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lupone, and Imelda Stanton, and on television and film by Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler. There have even been rumors that Barbra Streisand is developing a new film with Lady Gaga.

Mama Rose is relentless as the little girls morph into teenagers who have their own ideas and the conflict intensifies as June dreams of acting school and Louise of a real home ". . .if mama was married." But that is not to be and Act Two of this three hour show leads into the inevitable rebirth of the talentless Louise as the future sexy strip tease artist and actress Gypsy Rose Lee. For Mama Rose, the self-fulfilling prophecy of betrayal and abandonment is realized as she, through her own scheming and duplicity, succeeds in driving away June, Herbie and eventually even the faithful Louise.

When June elopes Rose is shocked and furious by the betrayal but quickly revives in "Everything's Comin' Up Roses" as she turns all of her ambition onto the reluctant but compliant Louise. For a while everything seems upbeat with a new cast of "Toreadorables —energetic chorines who eventually turn blonde. Agnes/Amanda (Libby Rosenfield) is the adorable comic relief. "Together Wherever We Go" is another upbeat favorite which seems to reestablish the trio of Rose, Louise and Herbie in a dream of a more hopeful future. We suspect that somehow that ideal will be perverted by Rose's insatiable need to succeed. If it seems far-fetched, TV's Toddlers and Tiaras offered the same relentless drive by mothers to push tykes into star turns, Baby June lives!

Director and choreographer Richard Stafford moves a large cast across a small stage accompanied, at times by awkward set pieces which slow the show's fluidity. The chorus dancers, male and female, are excellent. Sometimes the choreography is repetitious, but it does the job. Some of the lighting by Jack Mahler is very dark, but then so is the play and its Greek tragedy plot line.

Opening night seemed under-rehearsed and the actors fumbled with costume changes. The otherwise believable and sensitive Kyra Kennedy as Louise seemed unsure of the strip transitions which took too long. However, the show should smooth out after this weekend.

The ensemble cast ranges from adequate to excellent; Emily Soell's Miss Cratchitt, Tom Schindler as Pop and Alex Dorf as Tulsa stand out. As a summer stock production it tells its story and anyone not familiar with the show will find memorable scenes – replete with a dancing cow, strippers with gimmicks and breast-beating regret. This show, an example of the 20th century Broadway style, with its overture and large cast, is a great way to introduce young people to the magic of theatre. Don't forget the subtitle, A Musical Fable. There are lessons to be learned.

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Book: Arthur Laurents; Music: Jule Styne; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director and choreographer: Richard Stafford
Music Director: Joshua Zecher-Ross
Cast: Karen Ziemba (Mama Rose), Rufus Collins (Herbie), Kyra Kennedy (Louise), Julia Hemp (Dainty June), Alex Dorf (Tulsa), Sarah Cline (Tessie Tura), Carly Sakolove (Mazeppa), Electra/Miss Cratchitt (Emily Soell), Libby Rosenfield (Agnes), David Fanning (Uncle Jocko/Kringelein), Tom Schindler (Pop), Serafina Fauci (Baby June), Olivia Santiago (Baby Louise). Ensemble: Joseph Allen, David Cadwell, Nick Case, John Champion, Mac Cherry, Sarah cline, Sarah Anne Fuller Hogewood, Jacqueline Minogue, Lily Autumn Page, Johnathan Teeling. Children: Evan Fine, Joseph Lamberti, Jane Langan, Shane Ravi Lischin.
Set Design and lighting design: Jack Mehler
Costume Design: Michele Eden-Humphrey
Sound Design: Emma Wilk
Stage Manager: Sarah Barnes
Running Time: Three hours; one intermission
Sharon Playhouse, Rte. 343, Sharon, CT
From 6/16/16; closing 7/3/16
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at 6/16/16 opening performance

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