The 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy has been compared to Shakespeare's King Lear and praised as "what may be the greatest of all American musicals" by none other than New York Times chief critic Ben Brantley. It has been done on stages around the world, made into a successful Hollywood movie and had four acclaimed Broadway revivals, including the Tony Award-winning 1989 version.
Songs from it have become hits — Small World, Everything's Coming Up Roses, Together (Wherever We Go), Some People — and the central character, Mama Rose, has become the archetype for pushy stage mothers.
Stage West Community Playhouse opens its version of the award-winning show on Thursday and continues weekends through Jan. 20. It's directed by John Masterson, who won a HAMI award for his performance as the suspicious hotel manager Kringelein in the 1999 Stage West production of the same show.
Gypsy is loosely based on the memoirs of the classy, world-famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Amanda Bajzec, Katalin in Chicago), but it's mainly about Gypsy's mother, Rose (Patti Waters, HAMI in title role of Hello, Dolly).
Mama Rose always wanted to be a star of the stage, but when she didn't make it, she became ferociously determined that her two daughters would. She cajoles her father to give her money to take them out on the circuit (Some People), then drags them from one agent or stage to the next, touting the adorable charms of Baby June (Rylie Nelson, Annie Jr.), warbling Let Me Entertain You while her awkward sister, Baby Louise (Briana Rifino, Charlotte's Web) stays in the background, dressed like a boy in the chorus line, first as a Newsboy, then a Farmboy, finally getting to play a grown-up girl when June grows up (Stephanie Cooper, The Music Man) and becomes a Toreadorable.
In the meantime, Mama Rose acquires an agent/boyfriend in the ever-supportive Herbie (Gary Ammerman, Bus Stop), who picks up the pieces of Mama Rose's misguided personal and performance wrecks.
When a grown-up June runs away with the chorus boy Tulsa (Michael Mekus, Trevor in Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr.), Mama Rose hits rock bottom, realizing that the untalented Louise (Bajzec) is her last hope. That's when Louise shows what she's got, with the guidance of three brassy strippers (You Gotta Get a Gimmick) Miss Mazeppa (Wahnita DeFrancesco, Cassie in A Chorus Line at Richey Suncoast Theatre), Electra (Mari-Beth Rose, stage debut) and Tessie Tura (Jennifer Vilardi, multiple HAMI winner).
Interestingly, directors of at least two Gypsy revivals have interpreted the closing scene between Gypsy and Mama Rose differently from the original production. Without changing a word of dialogue, the actors used body language and facial expressions to convey a more tragic ending than the original stage show, which ended on a hopeful, upbeat note. Watching how the Stage West director and actors choose to play this crucial scene will be one of the most interesting moments of the evening.