Entertaining ‘Gypsy’ leaves a (long) lasting impression

Riverside Theatre gathered its significant resources and sure-footed confidence to mount one of the greatest American musicals ever, “Gypsy.” Indeed, this is a big, brawny show steeped in legend, and Riverside has the muscle to produce it.

At nearly three hours in length (that includes intermission), the show will send you home with almost everything you expect in this mountain of a musical: show girls, terrific songs, great tap-dancing, lady-like striptease and a stage mother’s big number.

Based on the memoirs of the legendary burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, the 1959 musical has a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Subtitled “A Musical Fable,” the show begins with Mama Rose, the quintessential brash stage mother, hauling her two daughters, June and Louise, through the vaudeville circuit. Rose quickly meets Herbie, a gentle soul who falls in love with her and agrees to become their booking agent. Years pass and vaudeville begins its slow death. June elopes and leaves the act, but still Mama Rose is determined to remain in show business. She turns her eye to Louise, her heretofore neglected, raven-haired daughter. As vaudeville gasps its final breaths, Louise turns to burlesque, becoming the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee.

The long show has long musical numbers, here led by conductor/music director Ann Shuttlesworth. They are the iconic “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You” and the signature “Rose’s Turn.” It takes the audience through the heyday of vaudeville’s national circuit into the seedy confines of burlesque.

The show is often toe-tapping and frequently funny. After a long expository beginning, which seems relentless in its pursuit to reveal the dismal side of show biz, it sparks to life with “Dainty June and Her Farmboys,” when director James Brennan gets to show off some of his high-spirited choreography. That is soon followed by “All I Need Is the Girl,” in which Tulsa (handsome and talented Christian Probst) performs a superb song and dance number.

As expected, the show is nearly stolen in the second act by three well-seasoned strippers – Mazeppa (Mary Callanan), Electra (Pam Bradley) and Tessie Tura (Susan Cella) – who perform the hysterical number “Ya Gotta Get a Gimmick,” complete with bumps, grinds and a trumpet.

It’s all typical “Gypsy.”

Ultimately, though, Riverside’s well-oiled production gets in its own way with the demands of moving the episodic story along. The deeper emotional moments don’t resonate, undercutting the big payoffs. Instead of understanding Mama Rose’s sacrifice, we see her as a self-serving, impossible stage mother. Herbie barely shows any hurt when he breaks up with Rose. And despite years of emotional abuse and the type of treatment that would today alert child services workers, a grown Louise avoids the gut-wrenching confrontation with her mother.

As Rose, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan brings a lot of energy and brassy swagger to her big voice. She exposes Rose’s irritating pushiness but misses that deeper chord which lays the groundwork for her dramatic melt-down in “Rose’s Turn.” Her heart-wrenching lament, “I was born too soon and started too late,” does not land.

Bob Walton makes a sweet Herbie and has a nice ease in song and dance. He is likable in his scenes with Rose and the grown Louise. But we really want to see his angry, hurt moment when he finally finds the courage to tell Rose off. And we need that. We need him to be the audience’s voice and tell the stage mother just how awful she is.

The biggest character arc of course comes from Louise, played by the elegant and charming Austen Danielle Bohmer. Constantly put upon and verbally abused, Louise shows her sacrifice and love to the family when she agrees to do burlesque. She dons a stripper’s gown, is surprised by her own physical beauty, and then walks on stage. Bohmer has some fun moments with the audience and goes through various strip tease numbers where a glove is doffed, a shoulder strap slipped off and eventually, ooh la la. Not only is she beautiful, she also has fun in this sequence.

With the myriad of depression-era, vaudeville and burlesque garb, Kurt Alger continues to show his smart flair and talent for costume design. His elegant gowns for Gypsy Rose Lee are gorgeous and functional.

Cliff Simon’s scenic design employs a two-dimensional motif evocative of vaudeville. His best nod, though, is with the beautifully carved false proscenium arch, complete with four-leaf clovers, an army of footlights flanking the stage and vaudevillian-style placards. Michelle Habeck’s lighting design dazzles, especially in “Rose’s Turn.” And again, Craig Beyrooti’s sound design makes the whole thing feel acoustic, which is appropriate given the setting.

For sure, Riverside has amassed a talented crew to tell this “musical fable.” There are scenes that sparkle, some that shine and others that maybe need some buffing. But no doubt, you’ll be entertained. Just take a nap before you go.

Gypsy” runs through March 25 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets start at $35. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.

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