Stepping into the shoes of a character like Gypsy's Momma Rose is no easy feat when you consider that Broadway luminaries such as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and Bernadette Peters have all put their own stamp it, but Washington D.C. theater favorite Sherri L. Edelen more than meets the challenge of bringing the ultimate stage mother to life in Signature Theatre's current revival of the great American musical.
Loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the musical combines a first-rate score by Jule Styne, catchy lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a touchingly dark book by Arthur Laurents. For Signature's production, director Joe Calarco relies heavily on emotion to carry each scene, getting something a little extra from each song. Whether it's Rose singing "Some People" with a bit more fire than expected, or her two daughters, June (Nicole Mangi) and Louise (Maria Rizzo), performing "If Momma Was Married" with an convincing desperation, this production of Gypsy is different than others that have come before.
Admittedly, things start off sluggish for this production's Louise, Rizzo, who seems to be overwhelmed by the orchestra in the first act's "Little Lamb." Yes, the character is supposed to be a shy, second fiddle to her sister, but she is a bit too timid. Things pick up quickly in the fun duet "All I Need Is the Girl," where her chemistry with Vincent Kempski's Tulsa is palpable.
She goes on to own the second act, transforming Louise from an introvert to wanton burlesque star in the blink of an eye. It's hard to believe that the mousy girl at the start could get tongues wagging so quickly, but as the songs become brasher and brassier, and as Louise's naked ambition rises, Rizzo's every ogling look and suggestive motion is sexy personified.
Mitchell Hebert portrays Herbie, the agent with a heart of gold who loses his heart to Rose and serves as a (somewhat sad) father figure to the girls. Like Rose's daughters, Herbie is under the controlling thumb of the woman he loves and can't seem to get the upper hand. While Hebert doesn't have nearly the voice to keep up with Edelen, his touching turn wonderfully plays off her strong demeanor.
Conductor Jon Kalbfleisch and his 11-piece orchestra set the stage vividly with one of musical theater's greatest overtures. These songs will stay with the audience for weeks as there's not a bummer in the lot.
A bevy of smile-inducing child performers charm, especially the Shirley Temple-esque Erin Cearlock as Baby June. Another delight of the production is the scene-stealing threesome of hilariously costumed veteran burlesque dancers (Sandy Bainum, Donna Migliaccio, and Tracy Lynn Olivera) who teach Louise the ropes of stripping in the song "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."
Edelen, who approaches Rose as more desperate than domineering, more manic than mean, and more complex than crazy, also exhibits plenty of heart, as the story is, after all, a love story between a mother and her daughters (with a great deal of tunnel vision thrown in).
By the musical's end you want everything to go right for Rose as she creates someone whom any parent can relate to, wanting what is best for her daughters. In the 11 o'clock number "Rose's Turn," she rides a rollercoaster of emotion, exploding from sorrow to exuberance, and making one feel as if her dreams have come true, even if they might have been twisted along the way. There's no sadness when she looks to the stage — as has been the case in other productions. There's just a happy ending, at least in Rose's mind.