"Gypsy," one of the most cherished Broadway musicals, logically should be called "Mama Rose" because it is really the story of the title character's mother. But "Mama Rose" sounds warm and cuddly and evokes the aroma of bread baking in a homey kitchen. Instead, this mother would probably use a kitchen only as an escape route to avoid paying a hotel bill.
Montgomery Playhouse at Asbury is closing out its season with "Gypsy," and although it is unevenly staged, the production showcases much of the show's charm, most of which is conveyed through the marvelous Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score.
You know the songs: "May We Entertain You," "All I Need Is the Girl," "Together, Wherever We Go," and, of course, the mega-hit "Everything's Coming Up Roses," among others. The quality of the score may be why Broadway revivals have been frequent over the years since the show premiered in 1959. Most recently, Bernadette Peters took on the role made famous by, and indelibly linked to, Ethel Merman.
Writer Arthur Laurents based the story on separate memoirs by sisters Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque stripper and 1950s television personality, and June Havoc, an actress. Laurents realized their individual tales of becoming stars were interesting primarily because of the presence of their overbearing mother, Rose, who pushed them onstage on the vaudeville circuit, relentlessly sacrificing everything else in the quest for stardom.
The abrasive Rose is not lovable; she seems to view her daughters mainly as commodities, particularly in the early scenes where their childhoods are being forfeited to her all-consuming drive. At first, "Gypsy" focuses on June, but then it shifts to the transformation of Louise -- the supposedly less attractive and less talented of the two girls -- into the headliner called Gypsy Rose Lee.
A cast of 23 people (playing 50 roles) is led by Jennifer Georgia as Mama Rose. While she doesn't quite have all the voice required by some of the arduous numbers, she certainly projects enough Merman-like brass to fill the stage. Georgia strains with the more demanding songs, including the anthem "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn." She's more effective with the novelty numbers, such as "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You," in which Mama Rose declaims on egg rolls. Mary Schmidt, as grown-up Louise, is poignant in the gentle ballad "Little Lamb" and holds her own against Georgia's formidable Rose.
Jacquelyn Joseph's Baby June is alternately comic and chilling in the sister act with Rachel Blaustein as Baby Louise. Their duet "Let Me Entertain You" certainly does, even though it is a slightly scary study in exploitation. Generating the biggest audience response was the uninhibited work of Jane Squier Bruns, Lori Sampson and Karen Fleming as strippers, each with a special trick, in "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."
John Dickson and Cecellia Rogers share the directing credit, and as is often the case when directing duties are split, the show lacks cohesion and focus. The actors concentrate on going through their paces, missing many of the serious undertones Laurents placed throughout the story. Fortunately, Styne and Sondheim, in their only collaboration, created a musical that develops a consistent thematic experience solely with the songs.
This production also suffers from being performed on a stage that is inadequate for a full-fledged musical. Even though the action is mostly played in front of curtains, it takes a total of about 24 minutes to change set pieces and props on the cramped stage between scenes. That has a deadening effect on audience energy and cast pacing, making the three-hour run time seem longer.
The nine-piece orchestra directed by Megan Glowacki was under-rehearsed opening weekend, occasionally falling into mechanical, marching band cadences, with trumpet and violin sporadically wrestling each other in search of a key they both liked. But most of the big numbers are adequately performed, and since this show is all about the music, this "Gypsy" can still charm.
"Gypsy" continues through June 26, performed by Montgomery Playhouse in the Rosborough Cultural Arts and Wellness Center theater on the campus of Asbury Methodist Village, 409 Russell Ave., Gaithersburg. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 301-977-5751. For information, visit www.montgomeryplayhouse.org.