Mama Rose is the stage mother from hell. The central character of Gypsy--now in a hardy production at the Arvada Center--might have been written up by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his classic case studies of evil. Apparently nobody in the late 1950s (when the show premiered) understood child abuse, because nothing is more dated about this exuberant musical than the sympathetic treatment given its heroine. The "Mommy Dearest" of vaudeville was quite simply a user, a psychological abuser and a monster of selfish ambition. Good thing the music is terrific--otherwise this couldn't play as comedy.
The text is based on the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. As the action begins, we learn that her mother, Mama Rose, has been married three times and that every husband has walked out on her. Big surprise. Mama Rose has decided that her oldest child, Louise, whom she dresses as a boy, has no talent but that "Baby" June will take her to the bright lights and big cities of the vaudeville circuit. She has a dream one night about the act and how to sell it. So she takes the girls out on the road, acquiring a trio of real boys to back up the song-and-dance numbers.
In one of the most amusing and oddly arresting routines of the evening, Baby June (played with amazing sophistication by eleven-year-old Dana Jeanne Kurtz) and her Newsboys belt out a truly obnoxious tune as a parody of child acts like Shirley Temple. Such horrendous schmaltz might have been the stock-in-trade of vaudeville, but its chief attraction now is to help explain why vaudeville died. Director Ann Ducati doesn't let the absurdity fly over the top--she keeps it just this side of outrageous, and the laughs roll in.
Along the way, Mama Rose picks up an agent for the group--good-hearted Herbie, who goes along for the ride because he loves Mama Rose. She promises to marry him when Baby June's name is in lights, but somehow we know she's deceiving herself and Herbie, too. Their song, "Small World," is one of the best in an evening of marvelous, melodic show tunes.
Eventually, the little girls begin to grow up--they no longer look or behave like nine-year-olds. June runs away with handsome, talented Tulsa (Rob Constigan's elegant song-and-dance number, "All I Need Is the Girl," is another high point of the show). Mama Rose is left with nothing but Louise and Herbie. Louise can't do what June did, and eventually the new act gets swallowed up by time until one day Herbie books it into a burlesque house. Louise has grown up, too. And one night, just as Mama Rose is about to give up, a star stripper is arrested and the company needs a replacement. Louise becomes Gypsy Rose Lee and is an overnight sensation as the "ladylike" burlesque queen.
Gypsy is a coming-of-age story. And all the sweet comedy aside, it's a dark tale of maternal manipulation. Kelly Britt brings a sardonic understanding to the role that helps mitigate the flesh-crawling quality of the tale. She has a kind of Lucille Ball vitality that helps keep the pace bouncy, though eventually the character grates so irritatingly that one can't help but wish she'd disappear.
Ronnie Stark's fine voice and sweet face help sell young Louise, and when she toughens up as the adult Gypsy, she carries a steely edge that transforms "Let Me Entertain You" into a sly bump-and-grind.
This is a long show--nearly three hours--and would benefit from a crisp trim. It goes off on too many tangents, and too many scene changes slow down the action. Director Ducati has a couple of young women dressed as Trojan strippers holding cards at the front of the stage to announce scene changes, and while the device is cute at first, it soon becomes annoying.
But then the production's best moment is itself a terrific digression: the "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" scene in which three strippers help Louise learn the trade. Sara Fernandez-K as Tessie Tura and TJ Geist as Mazeppa are hilarious as they hand out crass but kindly advice, and Anita Grace Boland glimmers visibly as the electrified Electra.
Gypsy might have been unbearable were it not for Jule Styne's classy tunes and Stephen Sondheim's jazzy lyrics. But "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Together Wherever We Go," and the dark "Some People" have aged well. Despite the show's crude sentiments, there are still a few bumps left in the old grind.
Gypsy, through December 15 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.
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