The musical Gypsy with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and starring Ethel Merman as the iconic stage mother, Rose, opened on Broadway in 1959. Three years later came the film version with Rosalind Russell as Rose. I saw the film when I was 19 years old and had not seen the film again or the play until it opened at Tacoma Little Theatre.
It opens with a gaggle of less-than-talented kids auditioning for the stage. Note: it takes talent to appear to be untalented. The kids are accompanied by their audacious and obnoxious stage mothers, the most irritating of whom is Rose (Stephanie Leeper), the quintessential stage mother. It's an opening scene that had the audience howling with laughter. Mama Rose is an unlikeable character, irritating and ridiculous, and Leeper acted the part exactly as written. Throughout the play, Leeper nailed the part, and she belted out songs including "Some People," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" with a voice rivaling Merman and Russell.
Later, Emilie Rommel Shimkus, Caiti Burke and Kathy Kluska as a trio of strippers sang the comic hit of the show, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." Again the audience howled with laughter and shouted out as if they were patrons in a strip club, a spontaneous reaction that seemed to energize the actors.
Surely everyone knows the story. Louise, the overlooked sister who was often relegated to playing parts like the front half of a cow, transformed herself into Gypsy Rose Lee, the sensational burlesque star. Near the end there is a marvelous musical montage in which Cassie Jo Fastabend as Gypsy performs with increasing confidence and style - a montage that would have made for a marvelously upbeat end. The actual end follows with Mama Rose's "Rose's Turn," in which she admits that her relentless lifelong pressure on her daughters was nothing more than compensation for her own failure as a performer.
The musical numbers are great, and are enlivened by Lexi Barnett's choreography and by Michele Graves' costumes. Leeper's singing in particular is terrific, and the way in which Fastabend transforms from the shy, no-talent Louise to the classy Gypsy Rose Lee is great acting. Jed Slaughter's portrayal of Herbie is natural and seemingly effortless. His is a textbook example of good acting.
There are two other outstanding moments I feel compelled to point out. The first is the magical way in which the children's cast is replaced by the adult cast, which is stagecraft at its best. Watch for it. The other is the wonderful song-and-dance number, "All I Need is the Girl," sung and tapped by Rico Lastrapes, which was smooth and debonair in the style of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Lastrapes should be destined for stardom.
I can recommend it as an enjoyable evening of song and dance.
Gypsy, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through April 2, $26 adults, $24 seniors /students/military, $22 12 and younger, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N "I" St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281, tacomalittletheatre.com