The vaudeville spirit is alive and tapping at Bloomington Civic Theatre, with a stirring production of “Gypsy,” directed by Zach Curtis. Based on the memoirs of burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, renowned for her striptease, it premiered on Broadway in 1959. Book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim collaborated two years previously on “West Side Story.” Composer Jule Styne went on to write the music for “Funny Girl” in 1964.
The main character is not Gypsy Rose Lee, but her mother, Rose. The role has come to define the domineering stage-mother prototype bent on making her child a “big star.” Set in the 1920s and 1930s, single mother Rose drags her two daughters around the country to perform, rehearse and audition for vaudeville houses that are being phased out by the movies.
The older daughter, Louise, who would be re-dubbed ‘Gypsy’ later on, is inept at the hackneyed dance numbers her mother stages. The star of their act is the younger “Baby June,” whose kitschy sweet little girl stage persona is the sort that would be elevated in the 1930s films of Shirley Temple.
Rose’s vicarious drive for June’s success clouds her judgment, leaving Louise’s needs unmet, her hired dancers unpaid, and her various husbands walking out the door.
Dazzling and dynamic, Sally Ann Wright captures Rose’s abrasive demeanor and its underlying obsession while revealing her deep maternal love. These varying qualities are heard in Wright’s brassy delivery of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and a trio with Louise and Rose’s love interest, Herbie, “Together.” The lyrics are uplifting, though we sense the harsh conditional love beneath the surface.
Louise lives in her mother’s shadow throughout, but we must see her struggle for autonomy despite Rose commanding the action. The excellent Kristen Husby transforms from a clumsy girl to a woman who sheds her insecurities as well as pieces of clothing. She is solidly supported by Paul Reyburn as Herbie and Katherine Tieben-Holt as June, fellow pawns on Rose’s rigged chessboard of life.
Zach Curtis’ direction, Shannon Roberg’s choreography and Anita Ruth’s music direction emanate the vaudeville spirit.
The entire cast has the snap and spark that one would have seen on the Orpheum circuit itself. Emily Jansen, Megan Love Warner and Jessie Ladig are delightfully saucy as three jaded burlesque artists. Dale Pfeilsticker typifies the era in multiple roles. Roberg’s nod to Jerome Robbins’ original choreography is notable in Martino Mayotte’s turn as Tulsa, June’s dance partner. His moves in “All I Need Is the Girl” are beguiling. Ruth’s terrific musicians delicately balance instrumental volume with the singers.
Dora Dolphin as Young Baby June and Emma Shine as Young Louise lead a vibrant group of supporting youth actors. Ed Gleeman’s costumes and Tiffany Fier’s minimal settings deftly suggest the era’s gritty reality while Grant Merges’ lighting supplies glamorous touches.
John Townsend writes about theater.