While not as well known as Jay Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn, Mama Rose is one of the defining characters of American literature. At once a hustler, a social climber, a visionary and an imposter, the hard-edged protagonist of the classic 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy would sell not only her soul, but her children’s souls as well, to break the bonds of dull poverty and rise to wealth and stardom, vicarious or otherwise.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, the show is loosely based on the autobiography of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee.
In the musical’s version of the tale, Mama Rose’s two children, the outgoing June and the more-diffident Louise (the future Gypsy), bring home the bread and butter by performing a sweet sister act on the 1920s vaudeville circuit until June, sick of performing and her mother’s constraints, runs off with a boyfriend.
That leaves Rose to turn the shy Louise, finally, into a star — as a stripper in a burlesque show.
In too many stagings, Mama Rose is portrayed as nothing but an evil stage mom, a Snidely Whiplash of the wings.
In the production that opened Friday, June 16, at The Shedd, Shirley Andress finds not just considerable depth but near redemption in the role of Rose. Andress, more familiar to local audiences in a pop/jazz idiom, reaches out to channel a bit of Ethel Merman, who starred as Rose in the original Broadway production.
Stage mom, indeed, but Andress finds warmth and real heart in the backstage darkness, turning herself into a loving tiger mom and pushing her children on stage as a matter of survival.
Directed by Peg Major with music direction by Robert Ashens and choreography by Caitlin Christopher, this Gypsy moves right along, mixing up the familiar hits (“Let Me Entertain You,” “Small World”) with the less familiar (“If Momma Was Married” and “Toreadorables”).
Ward Fairbairn does a polished job as Herbie, the girls’ manager and Rose’s suitor.
Kenady Conforth is perfectly charming as June.
Clarae Smith, who’s paid her dues with a series of smaller parts in Shedd shows, is dazzling as Louise/Gypsy, able to navigate the squirmy idea of taking her clothes off for audiences as both a necessity and, finally, as an art form that she can and does control.
The play features younger actors doing the sister act of the early years: Campbell Conforth as Baby June and Noa Ablow Measelle as Baby Louise. And it’s the contrast of those two interpretations, innocent and sexy, of “Let Me Entertain You,” that gives this show so much irony and pizazz. — Bob Keefer
Gypsy continues at The Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall 7:30 pm June 23-24 and 3 pm June 25. Tickets at TheShedd.org.