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Theatre Review: 'Gyspsy' at Signature Theatre

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By Kyle Osborne

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If ‘Gypsy’ truly is ‘The Greatest American Musical’, as many critics have agreed since its Broadway debut in 1959, then the role of ‘Momma Rose’ is surely among the most coveted and remembered among actresses. Ethel Merman’s original is remembered decades later, Broadway veterans from Bernadette Peters to Patti LuPone have been handsomely rewarded for taking on Rose. And don’t forget Bette Midler’s TV version in 1993. It’s not a role for shrinking violets-Rose is BIG, and it takes someone with a larger-than-life persona to give her the weight (which she uses to push others around), and the gravitas it takes to command nearly every scene.

In Washington Theatre, there is no actor more suited to the role than Sherri L. Edelen. You want big and brassy? You want forceful and commanding? That’s what Edelen does—so well, in fact, that in previous roles, one felt that she could turn things down a notch or two. In Director Joe Calarco’s version at Signature Theatre, however, Edelen is perfectly cast. This may well be a career-defining role for her, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing for a musical theatre actress, as we’ve seen.

Momma Rose (Sherri L. Edelen, left) places her bets on daughter Louise (Maria Rizzo) in the musical “Gypsy,” now playing at Virginia’s Signature Theatre through January 26, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Playing her more in the Merman vein than anything else, Ms. Edelen gets to sing all of those great songs known by generations of people who’ve never set foot in a theatre; “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, “Together (Wherever We Go)”, “Small World”, “Some People”, “Let Me Entertain You” are among the best known. Edelen does justice to them all. By the time she gets to the familiar finale, you wonder how she, or anyone, could have any energy left to bring the house down, but that she does.

The showbiz story of the ultimate “Stage Mom,” Rose shoves her two daughters, the talented blonde June (Nicole Mangi), and the withdrawn and less talented Louise (Maria Rizzo) , to the extremes of their abilities and that of theatre mangers’ patience. She’s pushy, loud and never takes “No” for an answer.

Starting when they are just elementary school age kids (they don’t know how old they are because their Mom has always lied about their age) the girls and a troupe of 4 male dancers put on a pretty terrible act during the waning days of Vaudeville, circa 1920’s. One particularly well done sequence starts out with child actors playing these parts, then transitions during a strobe light effect to the adult actors playing the same characters. The choreography is solid throughout, starting there and moving on.

As the years go by, June elopes with one of the dancers, leaving Rose with a dilemma—how will she get her less glamorous Louise to carry the day? Without spoiling what leads to it, Louise becomes a stripper (in the Burlesque since—not the kind of sad “Gentlemen’s Clubs” of today) and, eventually, becomes a well-known star. Finally achieving the status her Mother had dreamed of—but did Rose dream that dream for her children? Or was this lifelong trip through the dumpy Vaudeville a pursuit for her own ego?

A shout out to Mitchell Hébert, the excellent actor who becomes the manager for Rose’s act. As,Herbie, Hébert is a great, calming counter-point to Rose’s loud, sometimes shrill, shouting. His aching heart (he longs for Rose to marry him) is telegraphed with nuance, and it’s a pleasure to watch Hébert monitor the character with precision, while seeming as relaxed as the average Joe on the street.

One of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night, ironically, has Rose nowhere to be found and features three actresses, two of whom, are not seen in any other number; Three ‘veteran strippers’, played by Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Sandy Bainum, sing “Gotta Get a Gimmick” to the still barely naïve Louise. It’s hilarious and bawdy and kudos to the actresses for their bravery—they intentionally put forth, well, let’s just say “less than glamorous” sides of their characters. It’s bawdy, yet innocent, and the crowd ate it up with a spoon.

And finally, it’s worth noting that Ms. Rizzo’s transformation is a disciplined peeling of layers—not too fast, not too gradual, that inspires as much awe as her “make-over” does when she appears in the killer wardrobe of the lady Louise became, Miss Gyspy Rose Lee. Again, the choreography in the final numbers is incredible.

Whether you’ve seen it before or not, it’s quite possible that this production of ‘Gyspy’ could become your version from now on. With Sherri L. Edelen as the voice of a character who, let’s face it, isn’t all that easy to like in the beginning, but steals your heart, and a tear or two, when she takes that long awaited curtain call.

Gypsy continues at Signature Theatre through January 26. Running time: Tickets are available at Signature’s website.


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