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'Gypsy' receives impressive revival at Signature Theatre

Rose, the world's scariest stage mother, is at it again — pushing her supposedly never-aging offspring into any spotlight to perform pathetic song-and-dance numbers she concocts; scrimping and conniving to hold the act together from town to under-appreciative town; and, of course, hurling that immortal exhortation, “Sing out, Louise.”

If you have never encountered the schlock and awe of Momma Rose, the central force of the classic Broadway musical “Gypsy,” do not hesitate to arrange for an outing to the tucked-away urban village outside the Nation’s Capital where Signature Theatre makes its home. The company's revival makes the 1959 show, based on the memoirs of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, feel freshly galvanizing.

Even longtime fans of the musical who cherish memories of the original Rose, Ethel Merman, or subsequent manifestations by the likes of Angela Lansbury and the unlikely, but revelatory, Bernadette Peters should find much to hail here.

The staging, directed with a great sweep by Joe Calarco and designed in spare and telling fashion by James Kronzer, makes a snug fit in Signature's space. The resulting intimacy helps pull you quickly aboard this wild roller-coaster ride.

And what a ride. The book by Arthur Laurents smartly tells the up-and-down story about a girl named Louise who performed vaudeville in the shadow of her bubbly sister, June. Both were tightly ruled by their mother, Rose, until June fled to become an actress and Louise found herself thrust onto a burlesque stage — where she triumphed as Gypsy Rose Lee.

All great stuff for the theater, made greater still by the score to “Gypsy,” which bursts with some of Jule Styne's most inspired songs and a young Stephen Sondheim's clever lyrics.

Signature favorite Sherri L. Edelen is a knockout as Rose, a woman who has no patience for folks contentedly “living life in a living room.” The actress brings out all the bitter drive of someone who cannot get the glow of limelight out of her eyes, even if she has only seen it from backstage.

But Edelen also lets you appreciate the tender touch left in Rose, a side that might dominate if it weren't for the excess baggage of chutzpah and self-pity, guilt and guile. The result is a wonderfully multilayered performance that gets past the stereotypical view of a monstrous Rose — she's still thorny, but never inhuman.

Although Edelen might not sound entirely comfortable in the upper register (she is not a born belter, a la Merman), she sings with uncommon clarity and vividness. Note how in “Everything's Coming Up Roses,” sung ostensibly to bolster Louise, this Rose puts chilling emphasis on “me” in the big-finish line, “for me and for you.”

And when she reaches “Rose's Turn,” the astonishing final number that unleashes decades of anger and frustration, Edelen nails every line. She also makes you sense, in the song's unsettling “M-M-Momma” stammers, how Rose is remembering her own, disappointing mother, not just the daughter who no longer needs her. Performances don't get much deeper or more honest than this.

Louise's transition from introvert to sex-bomb has moved a little too fast in “Gypsy,” but Maria Rizzo makes it all plausible — first by the glow that crosses her face while shadow-dancing in “All I Need Is the Girl” (opposite the very engaging Vincent Kempski); then by the way Rizzo reveals just how stagestruck Louise is as colorful burlesque dancers (Sandy Bainum, Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera) teach her the ropes.

Rizzo doesn't bring out all the nuances in the “Little Lamb” number but otherwise does fine singing. She's especially winning in “Together Wherever We Go” with Edelen and Mitchell Hebert, who offers a beautifully detailed performance as Herbie, the man hopelessly in love with Rose.

Nicole Mangi shines as June. The rest of the cast, including the child performers in Act 1, are effective, too. Other assets include imaginative choreography (Karma Camp), vivid costumes (Frank Labovitz) and a tight orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch.

In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim tossed modesty aside and wrote: “There's not a moment in ‘Gypsy' that isn't entertaining.” The same can be said of this terrific production.

"Gypsy" runs through Jan. 26.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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