With 28 performers, 12 musicians and a host of gigantic set pieces that are fluidly brought into place on a revolving stage, Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Gypsy is the most expensive in its 25-year history—an enormously risky move given the current economy. And at six weeks, it’s also the company’s longest run.
The musical’s success is based on the performance of the actress playing Madame Rose, and four-time Tony Award nominee Tovah Feldshuh occupies the famous role for the BRT. So it was no wonder the company held its collective breath when Feldshuh injured her voice during the show’s second official performance on Dec. 9. The star rushed to New York to see a doctor, and while she was unable to perform in the remaining performances during opening weekend, the good news is that she is back and in fine form. Feldshuh’s portrayal of the obsessed stage mother ranks among the best performances of the season.
The 1959 musical is loosely based on the memoirs of the famed burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. Featuring music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an extraordinary book by Arthur Laurents, the show’s pedigree is unassailable. Epic but swiftly moving, the musical has the heft of a Shakespearean tragedy and the lead role is among the most complex and compelling female characters in musical theater.
The story follows Rose and her daughters June (Britney Lee Hamilton) and Louise (Amanda Rose) as they make their way across America during the 1920s and early ’30s. Incapable of fulfilling her own ambition of becoming a Broadway star, Rose is determined that June will one day see her name in lights on the Great White Way. To achieve this goal, she creates a vaudeville act around her daughter, whom she adorns in a platinum blond wig and ridiculous costumes. Along the way, she recruits a few homeless boys who, together with the painfully shy Louise, form the show’s chorus. The act is amusingly dreadful, but through determination and the help of a good-hearted candy-salesman-turned-manager named Herbie (Guiding Light soap star Robert Newman), Rose secures enough bookings to keep food in their bellies and a series of leaky hotel roofs over their heads.
However, even the most determined mother can’t keep her children from aging, and by the time the kids are in their late teens, vaudeville has fallen victim to the Depression and the newfound film business.
Feldshuh’s Rose doesn’t just love the theater; she is addicted to it and her drug of choice has taken its toll. But while she appears a bit worn and frayed around the edges, Rose’s ambition never wanes. Even when circumstances eventually land Rose and Louise in the unseemly world of burlesque (where Louise discovers her independence and becomes the infamous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), Feldshuh’s Rose remains a force to be reckoned with. And when Feldshuh sings the musical’s rousing final number “Rose’s Turn,” she does so with a fury and passion that is both shocking and exhilarating.
In addition to Feldshuh’s star turn, Amanda Rose gives an affecting performance as Louise, and Newman is excellent as the devoted Herbie. In the performance I attended, the young understudy Joe Garry took over for Joe Grandy in the role of Tulsa and delivered a charming rendition of “All I Need is the Girl.”
In today’s world of short, one-act plays staged on bare sets with ever-shrinking casts, Gypsy is a gigantic musical filled with larger-than-life characters and big show-stopping songs like the spectacular “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (delivered with gusto by Feldshuh). Lovingly directed, smartly designed and grandly performed, BRT’s Gypsy suggests that in some cases, bigger really is better.
Through Jan. 15. $40. Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. 215.785.0100. brtstage.org