By Joanne Engelhardt
Rose– as in Mama Rose, the ball-busting lead character of the much-performed and universally loved musical “Gypsy,” is obviously a force to be reckoned with. But when that role is played by the phenomenally talented Stephanie Prentice, whose full-throated vocals can likely be heard at least several blocks away, it’s definitely worth seeing. The role fits Prentice like a glove.
Luckily for San Francisco Peninsula theatergoers, it’s just a short trek to Foster City’s Hillbarn Theatre to witness not only Prentice but also several other fine performers.
The hackneyed story of an overbearing stage mother (Rose) whose determination to make her younger daughter June (Melissa Momboisse) a star first saw light when the esteemed talents of David Merrick, Leland Hayward and Jerome Robbins combined to turn the Arthur Laurents’ book (suggested by Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs) into a Broadway show. Throw in music by Jule Styne, lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim, then contract Ethel Merman to play Mama Rose, and what do you get? A sure-fire hit, that’s what!
Prentice has that Merman kind of chutzpa: badgering, bullying and generally making a nuisance of herself to make sure her Baby June gets the attention of everybody in the audience as well as backstage. Momboisse plays June with a wide smile, a blonde, curly wig and lots of sparkly pink tulle. She has talent – she can do cartwheels and summersaults, all while twirling not one but two batons.
When June was 10 or 12, the family troupe had a cute vaudeville act. But eventually vaudeville faded away and June grew up and developed a fetching figure, something her mother refused to accept. Vaudeville falls out of style, but Mama Rose keeps hauling her daughters around the country with her – to smaller and smaller venues – even as June can no longer pretend to be a little girl.
…A sure-fire hit that’s what!
Louise, the bookish mousy older sister, is perfectly content to let June have the spotlight. Instead, she lugs the suitcases around, acts as a gofer and buys chop suey for the three to eat morning, noon and night. “It’s cheap! And filling!” Mama Rose shouts.
As Louise, Makena Reynolds is a tad too attractive to be considered ‘mousy,’ but she does her best to stay in the shadows – even playing the front end of a cow when Mama Rose decides to make Baby June become a sweet farmgirl with six fine farmhands and a cow to dance with her. But when Baby June and one of her backup dancers elope and move away without a forwarding address, Mama Rose decides she’ll make Louise the star of the show.
Louise can’t really sing, and her dancing is mediocre, but she tries her best because that’s what mama wants. The turning point is when the act inadvertently gets booked into a burlesque theatre. When Mama discovers what it is, she tells Louise they need to leave immediately, but the practical Louise, as well as Mama’s long-suffering boyfriend Herbie (a rather subdued Chris Reber) – tell her they have no more money and nowhere to go.
The rest, as they say, is history. Louise’s shyness becomes her “thing” – that little something different that sets her apart from other burlesque queens. Soon she’s performing her burlesque routine at bigger and bigger burlesque emporiums –and earning much more money.
Hillbarn’s opening night audience last Friday night gave the entire cast a standing ovation – mostly deserved, although the large musical orchestra lead by Rick Reynolds sometimes played as if they were at a summer family concert.
Standout songs include “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Some People,” “Rose’s Turn,” all sung by Prentice, “Small World,” sung by Prentice and Reber, and “Wherever We Go,” sung by Prentice, Reber and Reynolds. Y. Sharon Peng’s costumes also are a highlight – from the plain “housewifey” dresses Prentice wears throughout the play to the clever outfits for the young June and Louise and their cadre of boys, who all morph almost onstage into young people in similar costumes.
Whether familiar with the legend of Gypsy Rose Lee or not, audiences will appreciate Prentice’s fine vocals, the singing and dancing of the large cast, and an opportunity to look behind the curtain to see how struggling actors survive.
Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Book / Lyrics / Music by||Arthur Laurents / Stephen Sondheim / Jules Styne|
|Directed by||Lee Ann Payne|
|Producing Company||Hillbarn Theatre|
|Production Dates||Thru Sept. 25th|
|Production Address||1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review PICK?||Yes!|