A school of thought has it that “Gypsy” is the greatest American musical of all time. Signature Theatre’s riveting revival offers breath-stopping instruction in why.
Directed by Joe Calarco with emotional intelligence and abiding respect for the artistry of composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents, this palpably lump-in-your-throat “Gypsy” is easily the most accomplished revival of a musical in these parts since Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” in 2010.
Calarco elicits from his cast of 21 a fine feel for the rueful core of this “musical fable,” so far ahead of its time that it lost the 1960 Tony for best musical to two lesser shows, “The Sound of Music” and “Fiorello!” On this occasion, the textured achievements include the deft metamorphosis of Maria Rizzo as Gypsy, who over the course of two hours and 45 minutes goes from reticent wallflower to petal-stripping extrovert, and the manly forbearance embodied by Mitchell Hébert as Herbie, a guy who allows himself to be walked all over until the footprints threaten to obliterate his pride.
And then there’s the terrier-like inexorability of Sherri L. Edelen, who as this production’s Momma Rose gives perhaps the rawest and most wrenching performance of her life on Washington’s stages. Known more for her sardonic than dramatic chops — her wheelhouse is a part like Madame Thénardier in “Les Miserables” — she gives us a vision of Rose as a sad, desperate backstage bully, a restive succubus plundering her daughters’ childhoods for the sake of her narcissistic sense of life’s injustices.
Rose is the Medea of roles for a musical-comedy actress; anyone taking it on must confront the legends that swirl around it, stories about definitive portrayals, often recounted by people who didn’t see them. From accounts of the ur-Rose, Ethel Merman, to tales of the revivals that starred Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly, to the evidence of the so-so film with Rosalind Russell and the awful TV movie with Bette Midler, the voluminous files on this great character make “Gypsy” treacherous leading-lady turf. Just ask Bernadette Peters, whose controversial 2003 turn as Rose on Broadway drew both critical huzzahs and raised eyebrows, about the minefield. (Though Patti LuPone garnered more universal acclaim, and a Tony, courtesy of the Laurents-directed Broadway revival four years later.)
So put aside your expectations of a star-driven “Gypsy” and appreciate the astute portrait of, er, naked ambition that Calarco and Edelen deliver with the estimable assistance of choreographer Karma Camp, an excellent design team and music director Jon Kalbfleisch’s 11-member orchestra. Mind you, there are other examples in this vocally assured production of strong supporting work, most notably by Nicole Mangi as a seething, grown-up Baby June and Vincent Kempski, suavely assaying the chorus boy Tulsa.
Edelen’s chip-on-her-shoulder Rose is small of stature: an ordinary woman of extraordinary nervous energy. The manic edge she applies to Rose’s championing of her daughters’ pathetic vaudeville kiddie act gets at the woman’s truly towering rage. The first inkling comes in “Some People,” a number establishing Rose’s belief in her own specialness. Edelen’s anxious badgering — in this song, for money from Rose’s father — seems appalling yet touchingly human. It’s the toxic mix of Rose’s entitlement and fury that Calarco seeks to harness, as the stage mother drags pint-size versions of Baby June (Erin Cearlock) and Baby Louise (Ellen Roberts) through the indignities of life in the ’20s on show business’s shabby back roads. The misery goes on into adolescence for Mangi’s June — shackled to the role of perky Shirley Temple manqué — as well as Rizzo’s Louise, shunted by Rose into June’s shadow.
The girls’ abject contempt for living under Rose’s thumb is channeled into a terrific rendition of “If Momma Was Married,” a comic song infused with Styne’s rich Tin Pan Alley vocabulary and Sondheim’s irreverence, which is conveyed here rewardingly, with real fire. The number propels us to the astonishing conclusion of Act 1, through Tulsa’s lushly romantic (and Kempski’s smoothly danced) “All I Need Is the Girl” and on to Rose’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
Few musicals manage as scrupulously as “Gypsy” does to fuse story, personality and psychology in song. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” achieves this with a layer of irony, too. Abandoned by June, Rose turns to Louise, the ugly duckling destined to turn into a swan of burlesque — Louise is based on real-life ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee — and sings to her, “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great.” But the song is no cheer from the sidelines. It’s a burst of optimism from a woman whose aspirational potions are all poison.
The bitterness between Louise and Rose deepens in Act 2, the mood lifted a bit by “Together Wherever We Go” and further by the strippers’ anthem “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” performed ripely here by Sandy Bainum, Tracy Lynn Olivera and, in a delicious return to Signature after several years’ absence, the company’s co-founder Donna Migliaccio. Olivera’s visibly delicate condition provides the number with an extra dash of loopy tackiness. Only in the challenging series of scenes charting Louise’s rise as Gypsy Rose Lee does this “Gypsy” feel a little shaky. The illusion of a “classy” stripper peeling off boas and bustiers has to look effortless, an especially difficult task in the close quarters of Signature’s 250-seat space, the Max. As yet, the requisite polish in the staging of Rizzo’s striptease is not quite all there.
But she’s outfitted splendidly by costume designer Frank Labovitz, who also wraps Mangi’s beaming Baby June in rhinestones and Migliaccio in a funny gladiatorial get-up that affectionately evokes horn-blowing Mazeppas of yore. Set designer James Kronzer gives the show a simple, becoming frame, with a bricked backdrop tattooed with vaudeville advertisements. And the feeling of life on the fly and on the road is smartly evoked with just a few rolling set pieces.
This “Gypsy,” in fact, never feels weighted down. It’s as revealingly, restlessly jittery as Rose herself. I overheard someone at intermission say that he didn’t think this Rose was quite as brassy as she needed to be, and it occurred to me that Calarco and Edelen were not worrying too much about the Roses who have come before. Their Rose is a diminutive woman whose paralyzing affliction is the delusion of greatness, a status she could never have achieved. How apt that in the discordant, messy version here of her electrifying final number, “Rose’s Turn,” Rose is exposed as that saddest of showbiz hangers-on, the legend in her own mind.
Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Joe Calarco. Choreography, Karma Camp; music director, Jon Kalbfleisch; sets, James Kronzer; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Lane Elms; wigs, Anne Nesmith. With Steven Cupo, Dan Manning, Carolyn Cole, Alyssa Gagarin, Gannon O’Brien, Samuel Edgerly, Joseph Tudor. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Tickets, $40-$104.20. Through Jan. 26 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call