‘Gypsy’ recalls child stars of yesteryear


By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)

When lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Jule Styne’s original production of “Gypsy” hit Broadway in 1959, I witnessed Ethel Merman play Rose, a role that many said was tailor-made for her and her alone.

Though the show has been through many incarnations and the part of Rose has been performed by a few of the finest performers to grace the “Great White Way,” today is another day. And we are lucky to have Sherri L. Edelen, a local actress who also seems born to play the role of the stage mother.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, describes a stage mother as an “individual … prone to obnoxiously demanding special treatment for her child or … [someone who’s] placed inappropriate pressure on her child to succeed. Some believe that a stage mom is vicariously living out her own dreams through her child.”

That the tradition lives on — just catch an episode of TLC’s “Toddlers & Tiaras” — is indisputable.

In Signature Theatre’s production of “Gypsy,” director Joe Calarco has breathed new life into author Arthur Laurents’ classic backstage saga. His interpretation is infused with so much talent, heart and energy, it’s happily bursting at the seams.

Let’s start with the cast — and what a stupendous cast it is, chockablock with powerhouse voices and dazzling dancers. There’s Edelen as Rose; Mitchell Hebert as Herbie; Maria Rizzo as Gypsy; Erin Cearlock as Baby June; Nicole Mangi as grownup June; Sandy Bainum as Tessie Tura, the stripper with a heart of gold; Tracy Lynn Olivera as Electra; Carolyn Cole as Renee, also known as Agnes; Donna Migliaccio as Mazeppa; and 12 other actors, dancers and singers that make up this delicious cast.

If you know musical theater in our area, you probably know most of these performers. They have reputations as some of the best in the business.

The story of “Gypsy” is inspired by the famous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs and features some of the most memorable music in Broadway’s history: songs like “Some People,” “Small World,” “If Momma Was Married,” “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” It’s a tale of two cute little girls and their tenaciously ambitious mother, a woman whose reason for living is seeing her children become stars, even if they have to live out of a suitcase.

As Rose puts it to her father before leaving him: “Anyone who stays home is dead!”

It’s the peak of Vaudeville’s heyday when Rose meets Herbie, a onetime talent agent and now traveling salesman. Together they become a formidable duo, devising a child act with June, Louise and a couple of stray boys they find along the way.

The star of the show is June, a precocious girl with blonde ringlets and a megawatt smile who eventually tires of playing the perpetual child forced on her by her desperate mother. “As long as I have this act, no one is over 12!” Rose admonishes her wards.

Lighting designer Chris Lee manages the aging process with the clever use of strobe lighting to “magically” switch out the children to older actors during a frenetic dance routine. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the dozens of set changes in which stage-height fabric panels printed with Vaudeville-era advertisements are moved from front to back and side to side throughout the show. It’s distracting and awkward, even though the quite-visible stagehands are dressed in period clothing.

After a while you come to expect it, though their method doesn’t seem like the smoothest way to transition scenes.

Still, the action really heats up during the second act, when Louise takes a job at Minsky’s, a notable New York burlesque house where she becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, who was in reality the highest-paid stripper in history. But why not find out how it plays out on your own?

“Gypsy” runs through January 26 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. For tickets and information, call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.