There are stage mothers and then there is Mama Rose.
Mama is the heroine (if you can call her that; maybe anti-heroine would be the better choice) of “Gypsy,” the Broadway classic now playing through July 17 at the Stockton Civic Theater.
If you haven’t seen the SCT version yet, here’s a few words of friendly advice: grab a ticket at your earliest convenience, claim your seat, mute your phone, and settle back for a couple hours of delightful entertainment in the period piece theatrical world of a stage mother.
If you are not already acquainted with the term, a stage mother is an overbearing parent who makes every effort—and stops at nothing—to make her child a show business success, regardless of that child’s talent, ambition or desire for a star on her dressing room door.
Mama is absolutely determined to make a daughter of hers famous and does whatever she thinks necessary to fulfill that dream. She knows every trick in the book. She is a master of coercion and manipulation. No one is safe from her scheming, least of all her long-suffering daughters, June and Louise.
The mystery is why Mama does it. What’s the secret of her unquenchable desire to see her children’s names in bright lights?
That mystery, revealed in the final scene of the play, makes “Gypsy” something more than a fa-la-la musical. So, too, does the top-notch collaboration of Broadway masters Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jule Styne (music). Their show business fable captures the comedy of no-holds-barred mothering and the price paid by those who are on the receiving end of it.
Such has often been the beginning of a theatrical career, and such was the price endured by Gypsy Rose Lee, whose 1957 memoir of her vaudevillian childhood and adolescence under the rule of her Mama Rose led to a memorable 1959 film classic starring Ethel Merman as the toughest mama of them all.
Merman’s is widely considered to be the ultimate performance, but the acting, singing and overbearing of Randi Linee does full credit to the Mama concept. It earned her a standing ovation from the matinee crowd with whom I saw the show. Sharing that ovation was Ashlyn Kelley, whose performance as daughter Louise (the fictional version of the real-life Gypsy Rose Lee) makes credible a transitional journey from uncertain youth to confident stardom. That confidence gives Louise the courage and insight to play detective and unravel the mystery of Mama’s obsession. (No plot spoiler here, but if you’d like the opportunity to play detective yourself, take a close look at Mama’s big number. “Rose’s Turn,” and see if you can find a clue).
The Stockton version of the Broadway smash is a crowd pleaser not because it’s a Broadway imitation, but because the crowd can’t help but be aware that the hard-working cast is giving it all they can, one hundred percent. The result is an engaging version of a classic that benefits from Jim Coleman’s direction, Paul Kimball’s musical direction and choreography by Jennifer Hargreaves that keeps dancers of all ages on their toes and induces the audience to do some toe-tapping of its own. You won’t want to miss the cute farmyard number whose dancing cow is a delight for kids of all ages (including this one).
Moo Moo is only one of a number of surprises in a show full of young performers whose ensembles create a busy world of stage hopefuls putting their assorted talents to the test. Mama Rose is certain to be nearby, fretting about competitors, urging her daughters to be star material, and trying her best to persuade stage managers, talent agents and anyone who will listen to play it her way. For Mama, that way is the only way it is. Which is why her long-suffering admirer Herbie (James Kusy) finally has to give up his dream of marriage, family and what he calls a normal life. The normal life made impossible by the stagestruck life of Mama Rose.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”
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