Before Kris Jenner and Dina Lohan, there was Mama Rose. And before “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Dance Moms,” there was GYPSY the based-on-real-life tale of a single mother in a single-minded drive for her daughter’s success.
The behind-the-scenes story of stage life from vaudeville to burlesque is based on the 1957 memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee, but the driving force of the play is her mother. Ethel Merman first strutted out as Mama Rose in 1959, a powerhouse of ambition, pragmatism, and perseverance. Her star turn introduced audiences to some of the most well-known songs in musical theater, including “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Some People,” “Small World,” and “Let Me Entertain You.”
GYPSY was unusual in its style, brassy rather than cute or classy. But its true controversy was the subject matter: A single woman making her livelihood by managing the lives of her daughters. Today, stage mothers are a Hollywood staple and a regular part of the reality-show lineup.
What is it that draws American audiences to the spectacle of the stage mother? GYPSY director Christen Mandracchia pondered the question while she prepped for the show. “Are these women ‘bad parents’ as some commentators have said? Do they simply live vicariously through their children? Are they selfish monsters? Or do they exhibit some of the best virtues that we value as Americans? Tenacity, ambition, optimism, resourcefulness, and bravery? For me, this musical is about a woman’s pursuit of the American Dream in a time when women were not allowed to dream bigger than the roles of wife and mother or perhaps a small receptionist job.”
Mama Rose (Cathy Alaimo) and her long-suffering lover and booking agent Herbie (Danny Scott) attempt to create stability in the “Gypsy” universe. Everything else is in flux, as the wild world of 1920s vaudeville flourishes, then starts to fade before their eyes. A children’s act is the main source of income. At the center of the showcase is Rose’s younger daughter June (Portia Murphy and Christin Thomas), while older daughter Louise (Rosa Nardo / Amia Shavaun and Bishon Prushankin) languishes on the sidelines on stage and in life.
Even as the girls grow up and become aware of the outside world, the world of entertainment starts to shift. With her opportunities diminishing and her life changing, Rose comes to realize that her last chance for fame may be slipping from her grasp.
In addition to slice-of-life conversations and fast-paced musical numbers, GYPSY explores how the relationships between mothers and daughters evolve. June and Louise have a keener view of the daily struggles of single parents than most children, as they watch Mama Rose scramble to keep food on the table and shows on their schedule. Their own personalities are shaped by their responses to Mama Rose and her larger-than-life persona. Christen notes that “Essentially, the central relationship of the musical is between Rose and Louise. It is an ahead-of-its-time musical about women and the roles that they must constantly perform. In this show, the line between ‘real life’ and ‘life onstage’ is almost non-existent, and the female characters use the stage to realize their full potential. Even the audience plays different roles as the action shifts from city to city, across the timeline from the two little girls auditioning for Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show to Louise as Gypsy Rose Lee performing in Minsky’s World Famous Burlesque.” With guts, grit, and glamour, these GYPSY women are ready to entertain you.
The King of Prussia Players present the musical GYPSY July 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 7:30pm and July 19 and 26 at 2pm at Shannondell Performing Arts Theater in Audubon, Pa. Visit www.kofpplayers.org for details. Reservations are not necessary for tickets at the door, which are $20 for adults, $15 for students 12 and under or seniors 65 and older. For groups of 20 or more, contact the box office at (610) 277-9505 to make arrangements.
Theater/Organization King of Prussia Players
Theater/Organization Website: http://www.kofpplayers.org
Theater/Organization Address: Shannondell Performing Arts Theater 10000 Shannondell Boulevard Audubon, Pennsylvania 19403 (Map It)