Review: The enduring pleasures of Gypsy

Gotta sing! Gotta dance!
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 6, 2011

Theater_PC-gypsy-3_main
UBER-MOM Brilhante as Rose.
There are stage mothers and then there is Rose in the musical Gypsy, who is to the rest of the lot what Godzilla is to geckos. The woman is a farce of nature, a point made time and again with battle skirmish energy in this Providence College Theatre production (through April 10).

Subtitled A Musical Fable, it hit Broadway in 1959 with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. Based on the memoir of celebrity striptease performer Gypsy Rose Lee, the Rose in the play was her mother, who in this portrayal was clearly driving her girls as stand-ins for herself.

The role was created by Ethel Merman and reprised in subsequent revivals by Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone. As a musical, some critics and theater scholars have ranked it as the gold standard of the genre. Some of its songs have become classics, such as "Let Me Entertain You" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses," two of the boisterous ditties that propel the show. It's being directed in that spirit by Amiee Turner, producing artistic director at Theater by the Sea in Matunuck, and choreographed by Dante Sciarra, a performance alumnus of the summer musical theater.

The phoniness of schlocky entertainment is shown from the beginning, as clownishly garbed Uncle Jocko (Jeff DeSisto) gruffly orders around kids rehearsing for his children's show. They include Baby June (Maggie Rock) and Baby Louise (Julianna McGuirl), the eventual Gypsy Rose Lee. The first act presents über-mom Rose (Samantha Brilhante) pushing her two reluctant daughters onto vaudeville stages, but eventually they're working the top-rung Orpheum circuit. The perkier Baby June, coached by her mother to end her routines with a signature cutesy squeal, is the center of attention, as Louise stays self-consciously in the background.

At the end of Act One, a grown-up Louise (Kelly Smith) comes to our attention. There's a sweet scene with a boy, Tulsa (Jake Goldsmith), whom she clearly has a crush on. Smith displays an interesting personality and a good voice as she and June (Christine Cestaro) wistfully sing "If Momma Was Married." It's June who gets married, though, running off with Tulsa, so Momma has to pay attention to Louise. The act concludes with Rose belting out the optimistic "Everything's Coming Up Roses," as Louise and Rose's loyal boyfriend Herbie (Ted Boyce-Smith) stare worriedly at the hyper-cheerful performance as though they're watching the woman go mad.

Smith is a good actor and charming character as Louise, although I didn't swallow her becoming a brazen, increasingly confident stripper by the end of Act Two. But this is Rose's show, anyway. When it comes to being brassy and self-confident, she could give lessons to Charlie Sheen. Brilhante convinces us that Rose could talk down stars if she just looked up and argued. Just one more layer, a glimpse of vulnerability now and then to give further reason for the character's chutzpah, and the performance would be brilliant.

Speaking of vulnerable, Boyce-Smith makes Herbie convincing precisely because of that quality. Herbie admires the thrice-divorced Rose — otherwise he wouldn't stick around for as long as he does — so seeing a soft side makes him a recognizable human being, not just a schlub.

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