“Gypsy” reveals the stages of a legendary life at The Players.
“Gypsy” is now playing at The Players. This show business classic is a big, splashy musical about what a rotten, soul-destroying business show biz is. But people love it.
The musical unfolds in the last gasp of vaudeville — the art form’s basically on life support, nearly flat-lining and hooked up to tubes and machines. Mama Rose (Ellie Pattison) refuses to believe it. She missed her chance at a show-biz career—but she’s still got her kids! Mama Rose figures June (Hannah Beatt) is the talented one and Louise (Ashley Figlow) is the also-ran. She drags her daughters around the country in a cornball, overripe kiddie act that’s a flop from coast to coast. Her tacky troupe also includes a chorus line of unpaid, lost boys and Herbie (Joseph Giglia), her long-suffering manager and eternal fiancé. June gets to play “Baby June”— a cringe-inducing rip-off of Shirley Temple. By the time June can legally drive, she finally gets sick of the infantile act and runs off with Tulsa (Brian Craft) — one of the back-up dancers who’s supposedly 10-years-old but has been shaving for years.
Mama instantly gives the less talented Louise star-billing—and the remaining dancers quit. The family’s slide to the bottom continues until they wind up in a low burlesque joint by mistake. One of the strippers is in jail; Mama instantly volunteers her eldest daughter as a substitute; Herbie leaves in disgust. Much to her surprise, Louise discovers a natural aptitude for her new line of work. She’s reborn as America’s favorite ecdysiast — Gypsy Rose Lee.
“Gypsy” bills itself as a musical fable. It’s actually distilled from Lee’s memoirs. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Jule Styne boiled it down to a sharp, cynical satire of the Jekyll/Hyde face of American show-biz: cornball pandering on the one hand, sleazy exploitation on the other. If this is a fable, the Big Bad Wolf is real.
Director Brad Wages gets the tone right — though I wonder if everybody realizes June’s icky-sweet “Let Me Entertain You” is a parody. His choreography is snappy and he cooks up some clever bits of business.
Pattison delivers a powerful performance as the Stage Mother from Hell — and she can belt out the tunes with the best of them. Her character’s as sympathetic as a toothache. While Pattison doesn’t exactly make you like her, she makes you see Mama Rose’s point of view. Figlow’s Louise perfectly conveys her character’s awkward gawky innocence—which makes you squirm a tad when she starts to bump and grind as “Gypsy.” Though trapped in the full body armor of her “Baby June” persona, Beatt gives you occasional glimpses of her character’s true face. Giglia’s Herbie is simply trapped. Mama Rose is taking the family on the road to hell; helpful Herbie pays for the ticket with the best of intentions. Nowadays, the talk shows would call him an enabler.
Jared Walker’s costumes and Jeffrey Weber’s sets bring this seedy world to life. They smartly evoke the gritty feel of Depression era theater people trying to fake a class act on the wrong side of random towns. Music Director Alan Corey has great material to work with — and he dials it up to 11.
Good or bad, all trips must end. Louise winds up on the road to superstardom. Mama winds up gone.
Louise finally informs Mama Rose that her services as a stage mother will no longer be required. Mama protests I did it all for you. She did it all for me, myself and I, of course. Her psychic armor cracks—and we get a brief glimpse of her fantasy of stardom, her name up in lights and an ocean of applause. It’s a devastating ending.
But that’s showbiz.