September 20, 2017
A wise director knows not to mess with “Gypsy.”
The classic musical — some think it’s one of the best ever written — that opened last week at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport stays true to the vision that Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents first set down in 1959. The story of the ultimate stage mother determined to make at least one of her daughters a star unfolds seamlessly under the direction of Igor Goldin, while highlighting some of Broadway’s most loved songs — “Let Me Entertain You,” “Together Wherever We Go” and the plaintive first-act closer “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
From the moment she enters with that famous line, “Sing out, Louise,” echoing from the back of the theater, Michele Ragusa as Mama Rose has you in her grip. Following in impressive footsteps — Ethel Merman, the first Rose, was followed by, among others, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters — Ragusa is a wall of steel in portraying the steadfast determination required to get her daughters top billing, or any billing, really, on the vaudeville circuit.
The act moves from theater to theater (Nate Bertone’s evocative set could be backstage anywhere), but it’s a dud and the girls well know it. That doesn’t stop Rose from her relentless pushing, first with June (played by an adorable Kyla Carter as a child, then a somewhat grown up Charity Van Tassel), later with Louise (a delightfully dour Amanda Swickle as a kid, an older Austen Danielle Bohmer in a beautifully nuanced performance).
When in the second act Louise and her “Toreadorables” mistakenly end up in a burlesque house, Rose seems ready to throw in the towel and marry the ever-suffering agent Herbie (John Scherer). But the resident strippers — Suzanne Mason, Jennifer Collester Tully and Amber Carson in Kurt Alger’s witty costumes for the always showstopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” — have given her an idea. Next thing you know, the wedding isn’t happening and Louise undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, from awkward showgirl whose “strip” consists of shyly dropping a single strap of her gown to one of the most famous burlesque stars of all time (the musical is inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee.)
When, at the end, Mama takes the stage for the heartbreaking “Rose’s Turn,” you finally understand her years of torment, of trying to live through her children. “Mama’s lettin’ go,” she sings. But, truthfully, you don’t believe that for a minute.