Bristol Riverside Theater’s production of “Gypsy” is a rare minor miracle of theater: it is both beholden to the steep legacy of productions and performers past that have tackled this beloved chestnut of a musical, while featuring ingenious shading and subtle interpretations that makes BRT’s presentation wholly its own dazzling marvel. I don’t say this often at the top of reviews but here it is: Go. Get yourself some tickets. Then finish reading this.
A quick synopsis: At the sunset of vaudeville in the 1920s, stage mom Rose (Tovah Feldshuh), attempts to make a star out of her precocious, talented daughter, June (Brittney Lee Hamilton), with her introverted other daughter, Louise (Amanda Rose) as backup dancer and also-ran. Along the way, her relentless pursuit of vicarious fame via her child builds up a coterie of additional talented children and a doting agent and love interest (Robert Newman as the adorable, hangdog Herbie), only to eventually cost her everything as one child rejects her, her lover offers her an ultimatum between his love and her fruitless dream, and her other child achieves fame via the burlesque circuit.
It’s the semi-biographical story of the rise of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, but the factual attachments are less fascinating than the echoes of it found in 21st century entertainment. In this era of toddlers and tiaras and continuous conversations about the fine line between healthy parenting and tiger moms, the classic 1959 musical (music by Julie Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents) takes on a very different timbre. As a culture, we have come full circle in the commoditization of our children as objects of show-biz adulation, and when and how we let them grow up brings up a host of uncomfortable questions. On the BRT stage the whole thing is attractively wrapped around Styne’s nigh-perfect score, with the ubiquitous “Let Me Entertain You” as an anthem throughout.
Now, there’s this thing about “Gypsy,” and about Mama Rose in particular. If you gather musical aficionados at cocktail parties, you’re sure to get gentle arguments and heated conversations about how each fan likes his or her Mama Rose. And there is a collection of celebrated divas that have each essayed the part — from Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler in film adaptations, to Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and Bernadette Peters in its stage incarnations (and rumblings that Barbra Streisand herself is looking to spearhead a new film version in the next few years), you can tell a lot about a “Gypsy” lover by which Mama Rose he or she prefers. Each diva adds a different flavor and has a unique, adoring throng of attentive fans. It’s the same sort of fervid attachment you see amidst fans of local sports teams. And each Mama Rose deserves that attention.
Now you can add Tovah Feldshuh’s magnificent, bulldoggish turn as Rose to that list of divas. Her Mama Rose is all brute force and runaway ambition, a terrifying and heartbreaking freight train of a stage mother with the brakes stripped off. While she lacks the vocal chops of LuPone or Middler in the role, she more than makes up for it in the sheer depth and scope of her performance. Watching Feldshuh is a master class in acting; Mama Rose commits unforgivable act after unforgivable act, and yet you know exactly where each choice comes from and you sit there, hoping that somehow she is going to finally choose love and responsibility over the pipe dream of her children’s stardom.
At the play’s penultimate moment, Rose has a choice between marrying Herbie and morally compromising her daughter to the world of burlesque. And of course we know what choice she is going to make, but Feldshuh’s layered and nuanced portrayal makes us pray she is going to be better than before, and it makes her decision twist the knife in our gut even harder. Feldshuh’s talent as a character actor is documented and legendary; this performance elevates that legend to another level.
Director Keith Baker, as a whole, has assembled a massively talented cast. Newman’s Herbie is incredibly loveable, to the point where Rose’s misappropriation of his affection almost turns her into the villain of her own story. Amanda Rose’s Louise is a revelation in and of herself, and the gradual and gentle nature of her transformation from mousy wallflower to sexualized icon is handled deftly and with great attention to detail. Baker also uses a clever bit of strobe lighting as a transition at one point in the show, in a manner that fit so well as to leave me wondering why no one has thought of it before.
It’s also worth noting that it’s a treat to see a fully realized and cast musical in a space as intimate as BRT, and there is nowhere else in the region where you can find that particular combination right now. The large cast is a talented ensemble of child and adult performers, each with their own moment to shine.
The love of a mother is a potent thing — and can be wielded for purposes both good and misguided. In the end, it costs Mama Rose almost everything, with one sterling exception. This is a production that, at any time of year, would be a must-see. Its testament to the nature, costs, and bonds of love make it an interesting and ultimately successful choice for the holiday season.
Gypsy, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Through Sunday, January 15. Tovah Feldshuh stars as Mama Rose in musical by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents. $40 and up. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.