She was always more tease than strip, and ever since she first shared the stage with Tessie the Tassel Twirler in the 1920s, she was determined to be famous for more than feathers and false eyelashes. She was Gypsy Rose Lee, the queen of burlesque, whose memoirs inspired the award-winning Broadway musical Gypsy, now playing at the Little Theatre of Alexandria.
Born Rose Louise Hovick, we meet her as Louise, the gawky daughter of the quintessential stage mother Rose. When her prettier and more talented sister June (later to become the actress June Havoc) abruptly runs away from the familys vaudeville act, Louise awkwardly steps into the spotlight and out of her clothes in an effort to fulfill her mothers show business aspirations.
But while the title may suggest that the show is about the famous stripper, it is really about Mama Rose, the unrelenting stage mother played by such legendary actresses as Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. Add to that list Alexandrias Nicky McDonnell, who takes command of the LTA stage to belt out a vibrant score by Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim that includes Let Me Entertain You, Together, Wherever We Go, and the signature Everythings Coming Up Roses.
From her first entrance into the theatre, barking Sing out, Louise! as she marches up the audience aisle, McDonnell completely inhabits the role of Rose, a mother who steamrolls her way onto vaudeville stages across the country. Too late to achieve her own stardom, Rose is undaunted in pursuing it vicariously through her two daughters.
McDonnell, who won the 2003 Washington Area Theatre Community Honors Best Leading Actress award for her role as Maria Callas in the LTA production of Master Class, portrays a dangerously obsessive Rose whose need for success is palpable from the opening strains of Some People to the bittersweet finale Roses Turn. From belting to ballads, McDonnell commendably handles the challenging range of songs with the phrasing and subtle nuances of her Broadway peers.
J. Andrew Simmons is Herbie, an endearing but lonely soul who hooks up with Rose after a chance meeting at an audition. Simmons delivers the most tender performance of the evening as Herbie falls painfully in love with Rose and endures far more and stays far longer than any man should. He and McDonnell have a visible chemistry that is ultimately doomed by Roses unquenchable need to succeed no matter the personal cost to those around her.
Sara Jane Lilley, a local elementary school drama teacher making her LTA debut, plays the title role of Gypsy, and her unexpected conversion from self-conscious wallflower to the voluptuous star is convincing and captivating. She particularly shines in the touching and melancholy ballad Little Lamb, yet with each step across the stage, Lilley visibly transforms from the sweet Louise into the savvy stripper that became world renown.
Together, McDonnell, Simmons and Lilley bring out the poignancy of Roses journey one that makes her achingly sympathetic to anyone who knows the disillusionment of their own broken dreams.
Joanna Henry, a Bishop Ireton drama teacher and 2005 nominee for the Alexandria Commission for the Arts Alex Award for Education in the Arts, directs the multitalented and multigenerational cast of 25 and coaxes engaging performances from Maya Brettell as Baby June and Lauren Charles as Young Louise. In an especially clever use of staging and strobe lights, Henry magically transforms the tots into teens during the Kay Casstevens choreography to Baby June and Her Newsboys.
Mickey Daguiso stands out as Tulsa, one of the older newsboys, with an enthusiastic song-and-dance routine in All I Need is the Girl. But its Jennifer Strand, Kathy Sanders and Ashley Edmiston as the trio of strippers who long ago should have hung up their G-strings that stop the show with an uproarious rendition of You Gotta Get a Gimmick.
Under the talented baton of Christopher A. Tomasino, Stynes musical score is superb as the curtain rises to reveal a 27-piece orchestra framed by a brilliant backdrop of twinkling stars. The overture, punctuated by the richness of bright brass and woodwinds, electrified the audience and earned an ovation of its own.
Producers Margaret Evans-Joyce, Sharon Field and Rance Willis have staged a production full of vitality that is enhanced by Ken Crowley sets and impressive period costumes by Grant Kevin Lane.
But in the end, the success of any production of Gypsy will always be determined by the strength of its Rose and McDonnell, with an aching in her voice, perfectly nails the brash humor, the maniacal tyranny and even the faint glimmers of vulnerability in Roses disappointment and despair.
Make them beg for more and then dont give it to them! was the mantra of Mama Rose, and the real Gypsy never actually appeared nude on stage her art was in being sexy, funny and clever all at once. So, curtain up! Let LTA entertain you with a spectacular production of one of theatres consummate and most enduring musicals.
Gypsy is playing now through August 15 at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets or more information, call 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.