Reviewed by George Basler
Hold on to your hats: a human tornado in the form of Mama Rose is anchoring an outstanding new production of Gypsy by the Endicott Performing Arts Center Repertory Company.
Mama Rose is the centerpiece of the show, and Terri-Jo Ramia gives a blistering performance as the classic stage mother who plays out her own frustrated dreams of fame through the lives of her two children.
The rest of the cast is equally good, from the leads to the supporting players to those filling smaller roles. The direction by John Penird is crisp and effective, as is the musical direction by Katie O’Brien and the choreography by Alery Patton and Pat Foti.
In short, Gypsy, which opened this past weekend (Nov. 11-13) is an absolute “wow!”
EPAC, of course, is working with stellar material. The songs — with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by a then-young Stephen Sondheim — are among the most memorable in Broadway history. Moreover, the book by Arthur Laurents stands on its own as a compelling dramatic story, rather than just filler between songs.
The show is based very loosely on the memoirs of real-life stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, known in childhood as Louise. But the main character is Mama Rose who furiously drags Louise and her sister, June, through the decaying world of vaudeville in a quest to make them stars.
As directed by Penird, the EPAC production effectively catches the cheesy glamour of vaudeville and the grittiness of life backstage. The full complexity of the main characters comes through as well. The action flows seamlessly from one scene to another, which is no small accomplishment considering the number of scene changes that require blackouts while scenery is moved.
Stagecraft aside, Gypsy’s success rests on the ability of the actress playing Mama Rose to pull off the difficult role. Ramia nails the part, bringing both a belter’s singing voice and acting skills to the EPAC production.
Her performance begins as a humorous caricature of the pushy stage mother, and then emerges slowly to reveal the character’s desperation and sadness. While the portrayal is full of humor, it doesn’t shy away from exposing Mama Rose’s dark side of selfishness and delusion that drives away those closest to her.
“Everything’s Coming up Roses” at the end of Act I is a show stopper. So is Ramia’s performance of “Rose’s Turn” at the end of the musical. The song is a riveting look at a character having a nervous breakdown, and Ramia sings it for all it’s worth.
As for the rest of the large cast, let me restate a point I’ve made in the past. The local talent pool is an abundant one. Gypsy proves that point again in spades. In fact, the EPAC cast is so good that it’s almost unfair to single out individual performances.
That being said, I’m going to anyway. Lyndsey Boyer is sensational as Louise, who morphs into Gypsy Rose Lee. Boyer catches both the love and resentment that Louise has for her mother. It’s a poignant, and funny, performance that turns brassy and coldly calculating when Louise takes on the persona of Gypsy Rose Lee.
Katie O’Brien is also first rate as June, the talented daughter. The sisters’ duet, “If Momma Was Married,” is one of the show’s high points.
Matt Gaska does a fine job as Herbie, Mama Rose’s long-suffering boyfriend, although, to be honest, the character gets overshadowed by others in the show.
Paula Bacorn, Andrea Gregori and Stephanie Jump are an absolute hoot as three strippers who show Louise the ropes in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Nicholas Sewchek makes a real impression in singing and dancing “All I Need is the Girl,” one of the musical’s most recognizable numbers.
Kudos should also go to Kara Smyk and Hannah Smyk as Baby June and Baby Louise as they parody a truly terrible vaudeville act. They are genuinely funny. Credit also goes to the young performers who make up the Hollywood Blondes, Newsboys and Farm Boys who accompany the two sisters in their act.
The sets and scenery by Pam Sebesta and Jeff Envid effectively evoke the time period of the 1920s and 1930s.
Gypsy is certainly prescience in forecasting how the search for celebrity, or at least notoriety, has become an all-consuming aspect of our society. It’s interesting to think of what Mama Rose would have done with reality television. I could picture her giving Kris Kardashian a run for her money.
EPAC’s Gypsy is just a great, great show.
IF YOU GO: Gypsy will continue through at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 18-20) in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theater, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors and ages 12 and under). Call 785-8903, visit www.endicottarts.com or stop by the theater box office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays or before performances.