Towards the end of Gypsy’s second and final act, Mama Rose stands and sings alone. The name “ROSE” rises in huge lit-up letters across the stage. Finally on the stage of her own dreams singing her final anthem, Mama Rose falters and asks, “Why did I do it?” In this climactic final moment, the question of why this quintessential stage mother destroyed her daughters’ youth by dragging them across the national vaudeville circuit becomes the central question in the play, directed and choreographed this time by Sam Viverito.
The Shubert Theater’s production of “Gypsy” showcases both the strengths and the weaknesses of this classic musical. The star, Kathy Halenda, reaches deep into the psyche of Mama Rose, the stage mother who “started too late” to ever have a career of her own. The dialogue between Mama Rose and Louise (Missy Dowse) calls for alternately tender and bitter interactions between a mother and the daughter on whom her aspirations are fixed. The actors and sets evoke a feeling of the losses of a family and the eventual downfall of the vaudeville business, and they create some very moving moments, especially in the darker second act.
The show opens with the first in a long series of auditions that introduce the family. Halenda — taking charge the moment she arrives onstage — brings exuberance, energy and physical bravado to her character, making Rose larger than life. The other actors rarely show as much depth as she does, rarely command such attention, although Rose is well-matched by her longtime lover and producer, Herbie (played by Nicholas Hamel). His earnest and believable portrait of a sadly lovestruck man swept into Mama Rose’s destructive schemes provides a heartfelt, welcome contrast to the wild pageantry and brassy theatricality of Rose and her children. June and Louise, however, hardly ever show any depth or growth as the years pass. Or maybe this is the point: Mama Rose can’t afford to let her girls grow up and keeps them in the same tired routines (and costumes) for ages. In one of the show’s loveliest and most serious moments, Louise has the stage to herself and sings the quiet, childish song, “Little Lamb.” As the song nears its end, she sings, “I wonder how old I am.” Haunting moments like this add beauty and depth to the show’s headlong rush through the national theater scene.
The second act, far more powerful than the first, moves beyond the backstage antics of the child performers and focuses more sharply on the main characters’ private lives. After intermission, “Gypsy” is in a darker and more fragile world. Sunny, peppy June has walked out, and the troupes of child actors have all grown up and fled to the “real world.” Those remaining are more vulnerable and desperate to find success. As vaudeville gives way to burlesque and strip tease, the action picks up. Dancing girls with big attitudes and names like Mazeppa and Tessie Tura appear, and sleazy managers inform Rose and her daughter that their former trade is dead and gone. The audience also comes to know Rose, Louise and the dogged Herbie better as their world starts to crumble. “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” with its over-the-top choreography, features the three strippers presenting their act in one of the best and most enjoyable moments: A trumpet-wielding woman gladiator, memorably played by Rachel Abrams, and her fellow dancers unite to show the timid Louise how it’s done.
However, the production is too complacent with the reputation of the musical, and it does not attempt to take it in a new direction. The stage routines of Mama Rose and her girls are sometimes tired and grating, and the actresses playing June and Louise are stagnant, locked as they are in a state of eternal childishness by their mother. The pain and frustration of Mama Rose, captured so well in the final number, “Rose’s Turn,” is lessened by the reconciliation at the end, which seems too tidy. Viverito’s production does not take the musical in any unexpected direction, and the scenes lack in energy and originality. However, “Gypsy” is — as always — an enjoyable and satisfying show, and it succeeds in bringing the timeless spirit of Gypsy to the stage.
The Shubert Theater, located on College Street, offers a dramatically different kind of theater than the typical Yale undergraduate offerings. A larger venue that hosts touring companies for runs of several weeks at a time, it provides half-price student rush tickets available for purchase on the day of the show.