The story of Gypsy Rose Lee, the legendary burlesque star of the 1930s and beyond, begins with a scene that looks like an early 20th Century “Toddlers and Tiaras” — a little girl in ribbons and curls and a glitzy cupcake dress with an aggressive stage mother determined to make her baby a star. Next to “Baby June,” the star of her mother’s vaudeville act, is her seemingly plain sister Louise, dressed as a boy, always in the background. As the Wilmington Drama League’s GYPSY progresses, you begin to realize that this is the story not of the precocious June, but of timid Louise, the future Gypsy Rose.
The Stephen Sondheim musical, Directed by Tommy Fisher-Klein, is a twisted love letter to Rose Hovick, Gypsy’s impossible mother. Rose is a difficult character to love. Obsessed with fame, she drags her family — which comes to include an agent/boyfriend Herbie and several unpaid young male vaudeville performers — wherever her quest takes her. She doesn’t allow her daughters to go to school or grow up; she insists that the clearly teenage girls are prepubescent, dressing them like children and forcing them to perform the same child-like acts for years. She’s quite a nightmare, and yet Tina Sheing brings out her humor and heart, making her immensely watchable and even, at times, likable. As Herbie, Pat Sutton compliments her well, sometimes the voice of reason, sometimes completely blinded to her obsession’s impact on her children.
Louise herself, played by Talia Speak as a child and Ashley Wright as a teen and adult, is a ray of sunshine in this world — not that anyone notices. She’s not as clever as her younger sister June (Nicole Hempill/Lizzy Sprague), who is fully aware that she’s too old to play a nine-year old, and she certainly believes she’s nowhere near as beautiful or talented. She doesn’t seem to fit in the dying world of vaudeville, but she knows nothing else. Burlesque was an accident, a booking gone wrong. Louise was intimidated by the dancers who strutted around the dressing room, but there was something magical about the graceful, talkative Tessie Tura (Jodi Persing), the rough-edged Mazeppa (Meaghan Gonzalez) and the sparkling Electra (Maureen Cotellese), whose “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” is one of the show’s highlights. At first Rose refused to let Louise — dubbed Gypsy Rose Louise by Tessie because of her nomadic upbringing — set foot on the burlesque stage, but the lure of seeing her daughter’s name in lights was too great, and Louise wasn’t given a choice.
Louise would never be the same, but that she became the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was not a tragedy. Gypsy blossomed from an awkward, lonely girl to a fabulous, witty burlesque star who would go on to fame and fortune; Wright’s transformation was so stunning I wondered for a moment if there was actually a third actress playing Gypsy.
GYPSY features a live orchestra on the stage, which you don’t often see at the Wilmington Drama League; it worked well under the music direction of Katie Soukup. The ensemble supported the lead characters well, whether with a “bad” vaudeville performance or a character building scene such as “All I Need is the Girl” featuring Dan Sanchez as Tulsa. The long (but fast-paced) first act focuses on Gypsy’s childhood, and while it has some great moments, it paves the way to a spectacular Act Two. Well worth an evening of your time.
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed and Choreographed by Tommy Fisher-Klein
Music Direction by Katie Soukup
Assistant Directed by Joanne Smeltz
September 14 – 23, 2012
Wilmington Drama League
10 West Lea Boulevard
Wilmington, DE 19802