'Gypsy': The stage mom and the striptease

Posted Friday, July 19, 2013 in Culture

'Gypsy': The stage mom and the striptease

Rose (Charis Leos) sings "Everything's Coming Up Roses" while fiance/agent Herbie (David Girolmo) and daughter Louise (Missy Dowse) comfort one another in the background.  Audra Hatch photography.

reviewed by Gina Hamilton

'Gypsy', which opened Thursday at Maine State Music Theater, is the story of overbearing and destructive stage mother Rose (Charis Leos) and her orchestration of the lives of her two daughters, June (Julia Yameen/Cary Michele Miller) and Louise (Madeleine Blakemore/Missy Dowse). 

In her attempt to make her daughters the 'stars' she wanted them to be, Rose drives one daughter from her permanently, and drives the other into the kind of stardom neither Rose nor Louise wanted, or expected.

Rose is enabled in her increasing delusion of grandeur by proxy by her beau and agent Herbie (David Girolmo).  All Herbie wants is a wife and a quiet life, but for many years, he allows himself to be overridden by Rose's insistance, even at the expense of the lives of the girls he has come to regard as daughters.  At the end of the road, when the act closes in a broken-down burlesque house, Rose and Herbie are at last planning to be married and go home to a quiet life with Louise.  But then Rose forces Louise into replacing one of the strippers, and Herbie can't take it anymore.

Reluctant young Louise, however, soon discovers something remarkable ... she likes it.  Under her new stage name, Gypsy Rose Lee, she finds stardom at last ... to Rose's horror.

Charis Leos was born to play Mama Rose, a fitting successor to the great Ethel Merman who played Rose in 1959.  Loud, brash, larger than life, Leos hits the role of the stage mother from Hell perfectly.  Her outre personality is softened by Girolmo's Herbie, a man in love who discovers, too late, that he's been an enabler and played an unwitting role in the destruction of Louise and to a lesser degree, her sister June.

The child actresses play their on-stage roles perfectly, woodenly, while off-stage, they are sweet and charming, and noncompetitive to a fault. But they aren't really in competition with one another, and they know it.  They're competing with their mother, and they can't hope to win.

Cary Michele Miller, in her role as the older June, realizes she can't become the star she has been brainwashed to think she is, and flees after marrying Tulsa (Tyler Hanes) who has dreams of hitting the big time as a dancer.  His solo, "All  I Need is the Girl", choreographed by Ray Dumont, is part "Singing in the Rain", part "All That Jazz", and demonstrates his incredibly powerful young dancer's body.  June is never seen again, becoming a legitimate actress.  Louise, on the other hand ...

The name of Gypsy Rose Lee is synonymous with striptease, of course, but Gypsy, historically, was more of a tease than a stripper.  So it is with Louise's performance in the breakneck striptease number in the second half of the show, "Let Me Entertain You".  At least five quick changes of scene and gown happen in less than five minutes, and in the end, the audience is no wiser about her anatomy than it was in the beginning.  Louise, now "Gypsy Rose Lee", is educated by a group of funny strippers (Abby C. Smith, Susan Cella, and Heidi Kettenring) who exhort her to "get a gimmick".  She does ... Gypsy Rose Lee becomes a class act who never actually sheds her clothing.

Of special amusement to us was watching a ten-year-old boy in the row ahead of us sit mesmerized by the striptease number.  Parents should be advised that while titilating, the number is definitely PG-rated.

Gypsy has been known to end a number of ways - with a final breach between Rose and Louise, with a questionable ending that leaves open possibilities for the future, and with a rapprochment between mother and daughter that may demonstrate a healthier relationship in the future. 

Regardless, the dysfunction in the family is personified by Louise, who is top of her game, to be sure, but her stardom was never what anyone expected.  In real life, Gypsy's life continued the dysfunction that her mother began; she married multiple times, had a son with a man other than her husband, and dealt with her increasingly problematic mother, who ran a boarding house in Manhattan and was chronically short of money, demanding more and more money from both daughters.  Rose eventually shot one of her boarders to death, but it was passed off as a suicide and she was never prosecuted.

The tragic childhoods of Louise and her sister, and the complicated adulthood of Louise are not glossed over in this version of Gypsy.  And yet, there are moments of exhilaration and joy that might never be captured in a straight memoir.  It's well worth a view.  

"Gypsy" runs through August 3.  Visit www.msmt.org for tickets. 

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