Theater Review: “Gypsy” at Signature Theatre

Sherri L. Edelen’s Mama Rose is a force of nature in Signature’s revival of the 1959 classic.

By: Sophie Gilbert

If Joe Calarco’s Gypsy, currently playing at Signature Theatre through January 26, feels flat at times, it isn’t because of Sherri L. Edelen’s hyperkinetic portrayal of Mama Rose—rather it’s that Edelen’s so dynamic and so furious in the performance that everything else fades in comparison.

Signature’s production of Gypsy comes ten years after Bernadette Peters scored a Tony nomination playing Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival, and just five after Patti LuPone won for the same role in 2008. Edelen’s Rose is frumpier and, if possible, more desperate. When she launches into “Rose’s Turn” in front of a vast triptych of screens forming an image of her face in the show’s final number, the disconnect between the movie star fantasy and the reality couldn’t be more stark. It’s this distortion of the truth into spun webs of silky delusion that Edelen’s sheer force of will makes you believe in.

Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, takes burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs about her domineering stage mother, Rose, and fuses them with Sondheim’s own mommy issues, creating one of the most compelling and terrifying portraits of family dysfunction ever seen in musical theater. Hints at horror abound—when Rose first meets Herbie (Mitchell Hébert), her embracing of him as “a man who likes children—we’ll have a real good time,” could seem unutterably creepy if it weren’t for Herbie’s gentle amiability. And when Baby June (played as a child by Erin Cearlock) first lisps her way through “Let Me Entertain You,” her makeup and hair are so forcibly over-egged that she’s reminiscent of both Bette Davis’ Baby Jane and JonBenet Ramsey.

Adult June (Nicole Mangi), her newsboys, her farmhands, her cow, and her neglected, blowzy sister Louise (Maria Rizzo) all pale in comparison to Rose, whose talent is convincing herself that her constructed fantasies are actually real (as June and Louise acknowledge in their splendid duet, “If Momma Was Married”). And herein lies the rub—it isn’t that much fun to watch badly performed vaudeville for almost three hours. Calarco hasn’t quite found a way to make Louise’s shyness and June’s arch winsomeness compelling. Rizzo has the almost impossible task of playing her character’s painful smallness in a way that’s big enough for Signature’s Max theater, and even when she metamorphoses into Gypsy Rose Lee, she still seems uncomfortable.

Rizzo shines in her dance sequence with Tulsa (Vincent Kempski), choreographed perfectly by Karma Camp to draw out her aching longing for acknowledgment. But the house of burlesque with its three past-it strippers (played by Sandy Bainum, Donna Migliaccio, and an entirely wasted Tracy Lynn Olivera) veers so hard into grotesque territory that it’s uncomfortable. This, one senses, is the endpoint of Rose’s fantasies for her children—a place where overgrown child stars get put out to pasture.

The show initially benefits from James Kronzer’s set, a vast wasteland of faded billboards and old headlines. But after a while, the overused screens which form trains and backdrops and finally, Rose’s face, start to feel tired and a little uninspired (plus, the tape positioned all over the stage to point out where they should go glows in the dark, which can be a little distracting between scenes). Frank Labovitz’s costumes are tonally perfect for the main characters and gloriously OTT for the performers, especially Olivera’s malfunctioning light-up bikini and a little girl in a Gaga-inspired balloon dress.

Ultimately, it’s Rose’s world, and Edelen delivers, giving us a woman, not a monster, even if her manic commitment to getting her children out of her own humdrum life turns her into one. Still, this Gypsy could benefit hugely from a more even direction, and a greater distribution of star power.

Gypsy is at Signature Theatre through January 26. Running time: about two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($60 to $96) are available via Signature’s website.