Let’s face it, there was only one Ethel Merman. While I never saw her legendary 1959 performance originating the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy, my mother and I did have the good fortune to see her in the 1966 Broadway revival of “Annie Get Your Gun.” You never forget being in the same space with Ethel Merman. As for Gypsy, the last time I saw this classic musical was the 1990 Broadway production that recognized Tyne Daly’s performance as Mama Rose with the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Now, under the direction of Phillip Duggins, Houston is being favored with a Masquerade Theatre production of the show, which, while not perfect, does offer flashes of brilliance that are largely the work Rebekah Dahl’s often-stunning tour-de-force as Mama Rose.
With its book by Arthur Laurents, the show’s rich score (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) was richly complemented by the elegant performance of Masquerade’s 16-piece Gypsy Orchestra under the skilled baton of conductor, Mike Medley. Orchestral sound levels and perfect microphone volumes were a tribute to sound engineer, Clay Ratcliff, and made everything easy to hear throughout the performance. Less satisfying were Mr. Radcliff’s uninteresting and minimal set designs that consisted of not much more than two corner scenes (that varied as bedrooms, living rooms, dressing rooms etc.), and a central set piece suggesting a railroad car that, for reasons unknown, remained in the middle of the stage throughout the show. The costume designs of Kayleen Clements were often great fun, and the lighting designs of Russell Freeman were fine, although there were dramatic moments when tight spotlights on the face Mama Rose might have offered effective focus.
The story, based on the memoirs of famed burlesque queen, Gypsy Rose Lee, tells the Depression-era tale of the ultimate stage mother (Mama Rose), and her efforts to mold her young daughters (Miss Lee and her sister, actress June Havoc) into child stars during the last gasps of a fading Vaudeville. Her early focus is on daughter, Baby June (here played with vocal and acrobatic skill by Noelle Flores, with the song, “Let Me Entertain You”). June’s sister, Baby Louise ( the young Miss Lee), is given a nicely understated performance from Maureen Fenniger as the shy sister who must settle for singing back-up with a chorus line of “Newsboys” who do some wonderful song and dance routines. These youngsters, and the many others who add pleasant youthful energy to this cast, are exemplary products of Masquerade’s Tribble School of Professional Musical Theatre.
But it is the wonderful music that anchors this show, and it is never better served than in numbers like “Some People,” with Dahl literally exploding on stage with thrilling intensity, a beaming face that lights the room, and vocal power that often hinted of the “belting” Merman style. Mama finds an agent in the pleasant Herbie (John Gremillion), and they have a sweet duet of “Small World,” in which Dahl is radiant, joyful, and in better voice than ever. She seemed to be one of those lucky people in the universe who, on this stage, had found just the place God intended for her. But alas, in this production, the touch of romance, and the needed tenderness in the sometimes rocky relationship between Rose and Herbie, seems never fully realized. There were also various moments when the pacing of scenes and dialogue seemed a bit sleep-inducing. But it is always the music to the rescue.
As the teenaged Louise, Laura Gray sings the charming, “Little Lamb” to a live (and rather feisty) young lamb, and then duets sweetly with Dahl in “If Mama Was Married.” Choreographer, Ilich Guardiola, provided some snappy routines and tap dancing for the cast, with special attention to the talented young Tribble performers. The amusing song, “Mr. Goldstone,” was an example of the few times when an overly frantic Miss Dahl needed to soften her intensity. This scene could have used a bit less frenzy and just a hint of subtle seduction toward the producer who had finally offered Rose’s kids a contract.
The young actors in the “Farm Sequence” give a solid performance, and then, somehow, appear moments later in full tuxedos for the “Broadway” number. One of these, Braden Hunt, does some fine dancing (as Tulsa) in the exhausting “All I Need is the Girl” number. And Tulsa gets the girl, too, as he and June run off together leaving Mama to try and make a star of Louise. She begins that effort with dreamy optimism as Dahl sings a soaring and powerful, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” that leads us to Act II. Mama’s new act for the youngsters is the pathetic “Toreadorables,” that really puts the nail in their Vaudeville coffin. The next gig they get turns out to be in a burlesque house, and when the theatre’s star stripper is arrested, young Louise gets the chance to fill the bill. The rest, as they say, is history, as Louise goes on to become the burlesque sensation, Gypsy Rose Lee. She gets an hilarious introduction to burlesque from Kristina Sullivan, Allison Sumrall, and Libby Evans, during the uproarious, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” featuring both riotous costumes and stripper routines. Act II also featured the warmest moment between Mama and Herbie as they joined Louise in a joyful “Together Wherever We Go,” that showed Gremillion’s fine voice to good advantage. But when Herbie takes off and Louise moves on to stardom, Mama feels abandoned. She confronts herself and her desperation in the heart wrenching, “Mama’s Turn,” just before a touching backstage reconciliation between the still-dreaming Mama, and her now very successful daughter. I have a dream, too. Somehow, while watching Miss Dahl’s fine performance, I found myself casting her for the lead in some future Masquerade production of “Mame.” I’m sure she could pull it off.
Gypsy will be presented November 23-25, 2007, with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., as well as 2 p.m. matinees on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information call 713-861-7045 or visit www.masqueradetheatre.com.