The Boston Phoenix
August 24 - 31, 2000

Rose's turn

The Publick does right by Gypsy

by Ellen Pfeifer

The Publick Theatre's al fresco production of Gypsy has been almost as down on its luck as the scrappy, scruffy band of vaudevilleans it depicts. Beset by rainy weather and a leg injury to Maryann Zschau, the Publick had to cancel numerous performances before this reviewer was able to catch one. With clear skies, low humidity, and an apparently fully recovered star, the show did indeed go on a week ago Wednesday -- before an audience less numerous, it seemed, than the cast.

That so few turned out for this performance was unfortunate because the production -- the last to be helmed by Spiro Veloudos as the Publick's artistic director -- is charming. It features a tight-knit, hardworking cast and a strong, multi-faceted portrayal of the central character, Rose. Not to mention an irresistible musical score full of hits like "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Together We Go," "Let Me Entertain You," "Small World," and "You Gotta Have a Gimmick."

Based on the memoirs of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (born Rose Louise Hovick in 1914), the show is less about Gypsy's personal rise to fame than about the gritty life of child performers on the vaudeville circuit and her obsessed, indefatigable, endlessly resilient stage mother. Desperate to escape the domestic confines of Seattle and convinced that her younger daughter June has star potential, the thrice-divorced Mama Rose takes her family on the road. Louise, who would become Gypsy much later, is shoved unwillingly into the act. She plays second banana to her sister -- dressing up as a boy, sewing costumes, patiently waiting for her mother to notice her -- until June elopes. Then, in a desperate plunge into Burlesque, Louise finds herself, and she too shakes off her mother's coils -- as the "ladylike" stripper who suggests more than she reveals. At the end, apparently deserted by both daughters and her long-suffering boyfriend and agent, Herbie, Rose confronts herself and the inner hunger that has motivated her actions. Only then is a tentative reconciliation with Louise/Gypsy possible.

In Veloudos's realistically unglamorous production, we get a real taste of the hand-to-mouth existence of itinerant entertainers in the 1920s and '30s. Crowded into tawdry hotel rooms, eating leftover Chinese food heated on a hot plate, improvising coats out of blankets, bouncing back from producers' rejections, a struggling troupe like Rose's survived on its dreams. (Making do with little is not so foreign to the Publick's own experience; one notices costumes recycled from Veloudos's production of She Loves Me last season at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.) But when glitz counts, as in the scenes of Gypsy's glory days as the queen of Burlesque, Veloudos and company supply it in the form of satin gowns, ostrich feathers, and bright lights.

Although the show calls for a good-sized cast including several child performers, Gypsy stands or falls on the portrayal of Mama Rose. Maryann Zschau conveys a motherly warmth and personal vulnerability that mitigate the grotesqueness of Rose's blind confidence, unquenchable ambition, and unthinking willingness to sacrifice her daughters' happiness. Although she may not have pipes lined with Mermanesque brass, Zschau negotiates the vocal numbers so indelibly associated with the late, great Ethel with color and pizzazz. She is more successful in the big, belty numbers like "Rose's Turn" than in the more lyrical pieces like "Small World," where her voice becomes breathy.

Frank Gayton makes a sympathetic Herbie, who's mesmerized but ultimately exhausted by Rose's magnetism. Unfortunately, his singing voice is small, and the staging never seems to position him near the microphones when he needs to be heard. Laura Schweitzer, as the mature Louise/Gypsy, nicely captures the young unknown vaudevillean's self-effacement and long-suffering patience. When she blossoms into the stripper, she supplies leggy elegance and pulchritudinous panache. (Not many could carry off that red G-string and pasties!) Jennifer Glick, as the mature June, sings and dances with just the right studied perkiness.

That great showstopper "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" is once again a hit thanks to the uninhibited antics of Ellen Peterson, a Mack truck of a dancer who "bumps it with a trumpet," Eileen Nugent, a "butterfly" with strategically placed tassels, and Jennifer Valentine, whose body parts "light up" the room. The children acquit themselves ably -- in particular, Sophie Rich, with her mop of platinum curls, lisps, dimples, tap-dances, and does the splits in a perfect embodiment of the awful Baby June. And Jonathan Goldberg, Veloudos's long-time musical director, leads his small but versatile combo with lots of rhythmic energy and color.