Audiences now have an opportunity to enjoy the Broadway musical “Gypsy” at the Bowie Playhouse, as staged by 2nd Star Productions of Prince George’s County.
2nd Star Productions is a company which often stages musicals that are challenging and highly dramatic, for example, last year’s “Ragtime” and “Chess.” Sondheim and Styne’s “Gypsy,” directed superbly by Ron Giddings, falls into this category. It showcases songs which have become staples of the American musical theatre, but at the same time featuring highly dramatic passages of a complex and at times. troubling family dynamic.
In this musical based on a true story, actress and singer Debbie Barber-Eaton masterfully plays Rose, a would-be vaudevillian who epitomizes the mother who has devoted her life to pushing her two daughters, first June (a compelling performance by Zoe Smith) and at last Louise (a challenging character transformation achieved by Lindsey Litka), into show business in order to make them stars.
The showbiz has smitten Rose’s efforts to make her children theatrical success stories come to fruition in unexpected ways: brash June becomes the Hollywood actress June Havoc (not covered directly in the show), and the shy Louise morphs surprisingly into the Burlesque queen legend Gypsy Rose Lee. Yet Rose’s inexorable drive and ambition to achieve all of this take an enormous toll on Rose and all those around her.
The character of Rose is detestable and likable at the same time showing a volatile mixture of vulnerability, towering strength and audacity. Her mantras of toughness and resilience such as “I am going to make dreams real for my kids” and “Some people got the dream, but not the guts” are somehow admirable and yet, in context, utterly smothering and offputting. All this causes the eventual alienation of her daughters, her love interest Herbie (an outstanding characterization by Jim Reiter), and all of the show-business performers with whom she comes into contact.
Barber-Eaton’s embodiment of Rose voices a lot like Ethel Merman who originally belted these songs out with toughness and panache on Broadway, but this actress’ true gift to this production is her superior acting ability and how it comes through in songs such as the show’s most famous tune, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
The stage set involves a recreation of the backstage of a theatre, a stand-in for the many minor theatres Rose and her crew play.
Off to the side, in a nod to a convention in vaudeville shows of old, placards posted and changed to described scenes and locales, such as “Seattle 1922” and “Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show.”
On stage, strobe lights were used effectively during a montage transitioning between a cast playing several of the play’s characters as children and the adults who take over these parts for the remainder of the play.
Though the stage props are minimal (albeit effective) in many scenes, the costumes more than do the show’s flamboyant Broadway characteristics justice. The elaborate costumes include a girl covered in balloons auditioning for a role in a vaudeville show and members of June’s group (and later “Madame Rose’s Toreadorables”) wearing a cow costume. The “Farm Sequence” and “Broadway” with the dancing cow are solid numbers in the show, displaying the talented choreography of Jamie Erin Miller. “Together Wherever We Go” is another memorable moment in this production’s choreography.
An additional outfit which stood out was the flashing electric lights gimmick of one of the burlesque dancers, the appropriately named Electra (played by Rowena Winkler). This happens as a group of burlesque house dancers explains to Louise that striptease requires a gimmick (the musical routine “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” which pulls out all the stops). These gimmicks include using a blaring trumpet, cheap ballet dancing and the aforesaid flashing lights. Louise’s gimmick? To become a striptease artist who at the same time, comes across elegant and ladylike.
The stage costumes worn by Litka as Gypsy Rose Lee catapults to burlesque stardom are dazzling.
A beautiful moment in the 2nd Star production and its staging occurs through the telescoping of time in a montage which witnesses the blossoming career of Gypsy Rose Lee: the stage becomes less and less bear with increasingly flashier backdrops as Gypsy sings and the orchestra plays striptease-style the song “Let Me Entertain you.” This song, sung innocently at the beginning of the show by Baby June (sung well and with personality by Jillian Sank), becomes highly suggestive when sung by that new striptease sensation, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee.
The sole complication in this production involves the orchestra, directed by Trevor Greenfield. Although not always vigorous in the overture, the orchestra becomes very useful indeed as the show proceeds, especially in its accompaniment to the stylized striptease numbers.
“Gypsy,” while an enjoyable musical in the classic Broadway tradition, is perhaps even more importantly a study in relationships and a nostalgic look back at the transformation of American popular culture from vaudeville into the rough and tumble of less innocent forms of entertainment.
This fine production of the Sondheim and Styne musical can be seen at Bowie Playhouse at 16500 White Marsh Park Drive in Bowie through June 29.