What are parents to their children? What are children to their parents? How does each satisfy needs the other has? When do those needs risk overwhelming the relationship?
Those perplexing questions are raised in “Gypsy,” the musical drawn from the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the striptease artist who was the Queen of Burlesque in the 1930s. The musical was conceived by David Merrick and Ethel Merman following the publication of the memoir. The book was written by Arthur Laurents (who had written “West Side Story”). The music was composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (who had written the lyrics for “West Side Story”).
The musical was a hit on Broadway when it opened in 1959 with Merman in the lead role as Gypsy’s mother Rose. It has been revived several times in the years since and was a major Hollywood film in 1962 with Rosalind Russell playing the mother and Natalie Wood the stripper/daughter. And it has been produced four times previously at Sacramento’s Music Circus, most recently in 2008, before last week’s outstanding production.
Last week’s production, directed by artistic consultant Glenn Casale, captured beautifully the conflicted relationships between the mother Rose and her two daughters, June (who became the actress June Havoc when she left her mother’s “dream”) and Louise (who became the stripper Gypsy when she realized a form of that “dream”). And it is the “dream” that drove Rose to direct her daughters in a vaudeville act that attempted to make June a star, first as a child and later as a grown-up child. (Louise had neither the talent nor the drive to headline and was thus a chorus member in the acts.)
Carolee Carmello starred as Rose in last week’s production, and whatever Ethel Merman brought to this role could not have been any more impressive than Ms. Carmello’s performance. From her initial entrance, shouting stage directions in front of an exasperated would-be stage manager (Ron Wisniski, solid as always), she commands the show. Her first-act ballads (“Some People” and “Small World”), sung softly, gave little indication of the vocal range and emotional power she showed later (on “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” that ends the first act and on “Rose’s Turn” that led to the play’s perfectly played enigmatic conclusion).
Ms. Carmello was supported by a strong cast that included several youngsters in the first act’s early scenes. Kylie Standley was especially impressive as Baby June, singing up a storm and doing cartwheels and full splits without even seeming to break a sweat. (Ah, youth.) Mia Fisher also merits notice for the less conspicuous role of Baby Louise. Others who stood out were Chelsea Turbin as the grown-up Baby June (still able to do those splits!), Cory Lingner (Tulsa), and Amy Bodnar, Deidre Goodwin and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as a trio of experienced strippers. David Hess handled the duets with Ms. Carmello as Rose’s long-time agent/lover and otherwise gave a subtle but effective performance.
And in the title role, Austen Danielle Bohmer was outstanding, first as the shy, seemingly talentless Louise, and then as the fully bloomed striptease artist who soared above and beyond her mother’s dreams and was the last to leave the stage mother who had made her. Ms. Bohmer’s performance was the most nuanced and, in the end, most critically essential to give the play its gravitas. Her character’s transformation begins in the first act in a showstopper scene featuring Mr. Lingner. His character, Tulsa, is working on his own routine when he reveals his dream act to Louise. And while he is singing and dancing exuberantly, Ms. Bohmer reflects the joy and excitement he projects just by the way she watches him. It’s a wonderful scene, beautifully directed by Mr. Casale and choreographer John MacInnis, and one of several magical scenes in this great production.
Other musical scenes worthy of note included the opening Overture, played by a strong 19-piece orchestra directed by Craig Barna. (Dennis Castellano was the music supervisor.) The “baby” cast (featuring Miss Standley) performed “May We Entertain You” and “Baby June and her Newsboys.” In the middle of the latter song, during a flash of strobe lighting (designed by Charlie Morrison), the kids were replaced by their adult counterparts. It was another standout moment in the show.
Another first-act highlight was the duet, “If Momma Was Married,” for which Ms. Bohmer showed a pleasant singing voice to match Ms. Turbin’s more dominant one. Their scene together for this song was well-played. As previously noted, Mr. Lingner sang and danced in the showstopping “All I Need Is the Girl,” while Ms. Bohmer emoted, and Ms. Carmello rendered a rousing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” to close the first act.
Ms. Carmello, Ms. Bohmer and Mr. Hess provided an optimistic moment in the upbeat trio “Together, Wherever We Go” early in the second act. And when the scenes moved to burlesque, the trio of Ms. Goodwin, Ms. Bodnar, and Ms. Donovan provided some effectively delivered humor on “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
The actual strip scenes were neatly staged at the back of one of the main aisles at the Wells Fargo Pavilion. They progressed in three stages, with Ms. Bohmer’s character becoming more confident (and more undressed) with each iteration. By the last of her “performances,” Louise had fully assumed the Gypsy Rose Lee character, and the wallflower stage-shy kid had become the Queen of Burlesque. As a result, at the play’s end, mother Rose is left alone, leading to the closing “Rose’s Turn,” which was another tour de force by Ms. Carmello. It set up the final scene between the two women, and here, again, Ms. Bohmer was every bit Ms. Carmello’s equal in portraying the mix of irritation and appreciation, anger and love that her mother’s dominance over her life had created. Their final moment before the stage went dark had the mother staring hopefully at her daughter while the daughter looked almost mystified at the mother’s continued presence in her life.
And so, like Gypsy, we are left to ponder what parents are for their children and what children are for their parents. Was Rose a destructive force in her daughters’ lives? Would either of them have enjoyed the careers they ultimately had if not for the mother’s aggressiveness in pushing their careers? And was the mother’s selfishness really the dominant motivation for that aggressiveness such that she should be viewed negatively for what she did to them? Are parents supposed to be wholly selfless in raising their children? Do we not all have our own “dreams” that we seek to see fulfilled through our children? To what extent should children honor their parents for the “dreams” (or “values,” if you will) the parents instill in them? To what extent are children beholden to their parents for those “dreams”? These are the questions that this production of “Gypsy” left me thinking about. That the production didn’t provide the answers made this realization of the musical very special.