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A CurtainUp DC Review
As the show opens vaudeville that late 19th- early 20th-century style of entertainment dominated by comic routines, sketches and songs, is dying. Taking its place is burlesque which emphasized a tawdry kind of sex and strippers who teased. The Depression, big D, has been and almost gone but depression small d is prevalent.
Heading the cast now playing at Signature Theatre is Sherri L. Edelen as Momma Rose, the stage mother to elbow out all stage mothers who is determined to make first one daughter, June, then the other, Baby Louise, a star no matter the cost in human terms. Edelin though diminutive in stature is a belter whose presence is huge. Rose is a monster whose misplaced ambition and determination ultimately destroys every relationship she has ever had. "She's a pioneer woman without a frontier," Herbie, (Mitchell Hebert in a weak performance) her potentially fourth husband points out. Though eventually her character's strong exterior and fierce interior motives are juxtaposed in one of the best finales in American musical theater, "Rose's Turn." A meltdown of epic proportions but no matter, "when is it my turn," Rose asks, losing none of her egocentricity after having had all human connections (well, almost all) severed definitively.
One thing is certain: it is now Sherri L. Edelen's turn to strut her stuff. She must have been waiting to be the right age and at the right stage in her career for this opportunity which she meets head on. Hers is a very strong and memorable performance.
Equally noteworthy is Maria Rizzo in a part that goes from mousey sister Louise to talk of the town Gypsy Rose Lee, the world's most famous and articulate stripper. She builds her character's transformation gradually and steadily until you realize just how beautiful she really is and how she owns the part of Gypsy Rose Lee. What a terrific performance. Fitting as well, since her character eclipses her frighteningly ambitious and cruel mother, Rose.
Fifth-grader Erin Cearlock has the kind of squeaky voice and regimented routines an unimaginative product of Momma Rose's direction that make you want to throttle her character, Baby June. Cearlock has mastered her role. The grown up June, Nicole Mangi, is also fine as Momma Rose's daughter who resolves conflicts with her mother by leaving. . .just as most people in Momma Rose's life do.
One of Stephen Sondheim's best comedic numbers is "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," the strippers ode to their trade. In this version, Tessie Tura (Sandy Bainum) an artful bump-and-grinder as well as Electra (Tracy Lynn Olivera) in ridiculous costumes particularly a pregnant Electra's light-bulb covered tutu, are very funny. But it is a very svelte Donna Migliaccio as Mazeppa who brings the house down. In a costume that suggests a Roman centurion with a billowing feather boa draped on the top of her helmut, she really does know how to bump it with a trumpet. This number, along with "Rose's Turn," light up the second act.
The ensemble made up of actors rather than dancers— although Joseph Tudor's high kicks would put a Rockette to shame—moves well under choreographer Karma Camp's direction. As always at Signature the eleven-piece orchestra including two particularly lusty trumpets under the direction of Jon Kalbfleisch is excellent. Scenic designer James Kronzer has created a background of grimey brick walls and movable screens that create just the right backstage atmosphere and Frank Labovitz's costumes— and there are lots of them — are lavish but not so complicated that many of the performers can't make costume changes in what seems like less than a verse of song. Director Joe Calarco has delivered this musical fable to the tune of a hit.