When “Gypsy” first premiered 55 years ago, Ethel Merman tore up the stage as brash stage mother Mama Rose. Her big, brassy performance cemented her as a Broadway legend.
But when Warner Bros. adapted the musical into a film in 1962, Merman was overlooked in favor of actress Rosalind Russell, whose voice wasn’t strong enough for the movie’s musical numbers and had to be dubbed over by another vocalist.
There’s a long-standing rumor that Merman, furious about losing the part, sought out the original tapes of Russell’s lousy vocals and held on to them as a spiteful token of her competitor’s failure.
I don’t know if that story is true or merely Hollywood lore, but it perfectly captures the tone of “Gypsy,” a savage yet heartbreaking takedown of the fickle nature of showbiz.
Spokane’s Civic Theatre premiered its version of the Broadway staple last weekend, and it’s as bold, flashy and occasionally frenzied as the deeply troubled characters it chronicles.
Directed by Troy Nickerson, it’s a huge production: The story spans longer than a decade and across several cities. The cast features 32 credited actors (as well as a real dog and a lamb) and the whole thing has to glide along with the unwavering enthusiasm of a tenacious vaudevillian.
The good news: There’s boundless energy to spare here, which transforms an old, potentially weary chestnut into an exciting, vivid production. The sheer size of “Gypsy” could have easily been troublesome – one misstep and the whole thing comes crashing down – but the Civic’s creative team never lets you see the seams. This may be a tale of flop sweat and failure, but the show itself is a success.
What makes “Gypsy” such a compelling story is that it’s based on fact, adapted from the memoirs of burlesque dancer and striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. As a child, Lee – real name Louise Hovick – and her sister June were the stars of a touring song-and-dance act managed by their mother, Mama Rose, who pressured her children into performing despite the fact that Louise wasn’t that talented and their routines were outdated.
The show itself begins as Louise and June are young and quickly flashes forward: Ten years later, they’re performing the same wheezy numbers, with June (Brie Cole) still pretending to be 9 years old and tomboyish Louise (Aubrey Shimek) relegated to hiding inside a cow costume. Mama Rose, played terrifically by Marianne McLaughlin, is determined to make her daughters stars, and her persistence is fueled by equal parts mania and insecurity.
June, fed up with her mother’s domineering nature, eventually elopes with her co-star Tulsa (Jerrod Galles), leaving Louise to be the center of Mama Rose’s attention. After an accidental booking at a burlesque house, Louise agrees to strip for a measly $10 – this results in the showstopper “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” in which three outspoken showgirls (Angie Dierdorff, Kate Vita and Marnie Rorholm) demonstrate their special, ahem, talents. Before long, Louise is an unexpected star, and Mama Rose is left alone with the splinters of her broken dream.
“Gypsy” is one of those rare musicals where the characters take precedence over the songs – if you were to remove the music, which the ’62 film version almost did, you’d still have a great piece of drama. It’s a good thing, though, that the songs are as memorable as they are. Written by Jule Styne (most famous for “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”) and the great Stephen Sondheim, the tunes are among the most famous in Broadway history – it’s nearly impossible to hear “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Together (Wherever We Go)” and not think of “Gypsy.”
The most effective aspects of the show are Mama Rose’s shattered relationships, and how those fallouts contribute to her relentless and often irrational drive. Thomas Heppler is very good as Mama Rose’s potential beau Herbie, who makes a futile attempt to tether her with commitment; his final scene, where he confronts Rose with the reality of her situation, is deeply affecting. And Shimek, as the burdened Louise, has the largest arc of the cast, and she’s both appealing and poignant in the role.
But Mama Rose is the most fascinating character here – she’s one of the most fascinating characters in all of theater – and McLaughlin is up for the challenge; she’s funny and larger than life yet quietly cracking under the pressure. Is Mama Rose crazy? Is she a monster? What is she trying to prove by dragging her children kicking and screaming into stardom? The fact that we never really know is what makes “Gypsy” one of Broadway’s most legendary, timeless musicals, and the Civic production is a worthy interpretation.