Musical theater's most famous show-biz mom and her daughters take the stage on Staten Island.
Every real fan of the classic Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy has a favorite Momma Rose. Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone have all inhabited the role. In Harbor Lights Theater Company's new revival at the St. George Theatre, Tony nominee Sally Mayes gives her own energetic interpretation of the notoriously driven stage mom. Though not everything in this production comes up roses (a few technical glitches need some tending), Mayes and cast deliver wonderful performances under the engaging direction of Bill Castellino.
Rose (Mayes) never made it big on the stage, so she decided to make sure that her two daughters did. The golden child of the pair is June (a delightful Olivia Fanders plays young Baby June; Heidi Friese plays the older Dainty June). Always in her sister's shadow is Louise (Gianna Romero is charming as Baby Louise; Samantha Bruce stars as older Louise). As the family's hackneyed act begins to lose its appeal in the dying world of vaudeville, Rose's efforts to live a life of stardom through her daughters begins to wither until underachieving Louise discovers a gimmick and a new name, Gypsy Rose Lee, that catapult her to fame and fortune — but at the risk of leaving her mother behind.
Mayes delivers a fine performance as Rose, though perhaps one of the less ferocious versions that has been seen onstage. She portrays the obsessive Rose as an inward-looking helicopter mom, driven to pursue stardom vicariously through June and Louise yet inclined to see her own behavior as not in her daughters' best interests. Friese lends a sensitivity and compassion to Dainty June. But Bruce (of The Fantasticks) steals the show, transforming into Gypsy Rose Lee with a startling intensity after showing us her humble and diffident Louise.
Though the production gets off to a slow start, the show finds its footing in the middle of the first act. Laurents' book, based on the memoirs of the real-life Gypsy Rose Lee, never gets old with its familiar, relatable story of a parent living out her unfulfilled dreams through her children. Music director Donna D'Ermilio and her nine-piece orchestra do the score justice, filling the cavernous space of the St. George with lively interpretations of Styne's beloved music. This ensemble sounds much larger than it is.
The cast ably brings that music and Sondheim's lyrics to life, together with some eye-catching footwork by choreographers Mary Ann Lamb and Lisa Gajda. Friese and Bruce sing "If Momma Was Married" with gusto, and Anthony Johnson (dynamic in Harbor Light's production of West Side Story last season) knocks it out of the park as Tulsa with "All I Need Is the Girl." Mayes belts "Everything's Coming Up Roses" to rousing applause. But the trio of Mimi Quillin, Patti Mariano, and Kathy Brier brings the house down with an inspired rendition of "Ya Gotta Get a Gimmick" (featuring spot-on costumes by Greer Vashon).
The creative team needs to work out a few mic and sound issues, including sets that become thunderous distractions as they're rolled offstage. But despite the kinks, the answer to Baby June's question "May We Entertain You?" is yes, this Gypsy sure can.