Ramblin' Rose

The Rep kicks off its season with classic Sondheim

Gypsy, which opens the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' 35th season with a bang, is a schizophrenic musical, befitting its unbalanced main character, the Medea-like Mama Rose, who consumes her children during her own narcissistic quest for fame by way of the vaudeville stage. Gypsy is set in the 1920s and '30s, but its structure and brassy, star-driven score by Jule Styne is pure postwar Broadway (the show premiered in 1959), whereas Stephen Sondheim's smart, character-specific lyrics point ahead to the smaller, introspective musicals of the 1960s and '70s. It's this tension, along with the strong book by Arthur Laurents (suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee), that makes the show timeless. Twenty years before the phrase "inner child" was coined, here was a play that examined the lengths to which people will go to be noticed by their mothers.

The standout of the Rep's excellent production is Joan Hess, who takes her character from the overlooked young girl Louise in the heartbreaking "Little Lamb" through hopeful adolescence to the charming, wiser-but-sadder stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Hess has a wonderful voice, an appealing manner and a commanding presence.

Emily Rabon Hall captures June's frustration and shines in her duet with Hess, "If Mama Was Married." John Woodson is excellent in the often thankless role of Herbie; Woodson plays him as a genuinely good-hearted guy who knows his limitations but also knows what he wants. Hunter Bell does an exquisite turn in "All I Need Now Is the Girl," performing the kind of breezy dance that looks so effortless it makes everyone think he or she can do it. As a trio of strippers, the hilarious Kathleen France, Carol Schuberg and Rebecca Spencer would be remiss if they couldn't bring down the house in the sure-fire "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." This smart number winks at itself; the title could be the instructions on how to write a second-act comedy number.

Rose, the center of the play, is such a complex character that she can accommodate (and withstand) many interpretations. Ethel Merman played her originally as oblivious to her own megalomania, probably because Merman herself was. Since then, actresses Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bette Midler have emphasized Rose's self-delusion and dysfunction. At the Rep, director Victoria Bussert and actress Pamela Myers continue this push toward the narcissistic, which is a legitimate choice but limits the range of emotional connections Rose can have with other characters and the audience. We sit back and observe rather than becoming involved or recognizing part of ourselves in her. That's not to say the observing isn't entertaining; Myers has a fine voice and is both strong and funny in this daunting role. Her Rose is so much bigger than life that her songs aren't enough for her; she sometimes half-sings her dialogue as if she were a character in a Greek tragedy.

It's great to see this classic piece done with the resources a theater such as the Rep can afford: a large, talented ensemble; a great John Ezell set, lit by Peter E. Sargent; marvelous costumes by Suzy Benzinger; a live orchestra (what a treat!) led by musical director Steven Gross. Bussert stages both musical and dramatic scenes expertly, never forgetting that they're part of the same fabric, woven seamlessly with Janet Watson's choreography, which pokes fun at the vaudeville tradition while simultaneously paying homage to it.