Actress Leigh Barrett gravitates toward flawed characters.
“They have the most compelling stories to tell because they are complicated and often misunderstood,” she says.
Over the past two decades on Boston stages, some of Barrett’s favorite roles have included Sally in “Follies,” Fosca in “Passion,” Little Edie in “Grey Gardens,” and Florence Foster Jenkins in “Souvenir” (a role she will reprise Oct. 20-Nov. 19 at the Lyric Stage Company). Starting Friday, Barrett, a two-time Elliot Norton Award winner, takes on the epic role of Mama Rose in Lyric’s production of “Gypsy.”
Mama Rose, the real-life mother of the famous burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, pushed her children to achieve the acclaim she couldn’t, alienating them in the process. Based on Lee’s autobiography, “Gypsy: A Musical Fable” boasts the creative team of book writer Arthur Laurents (“West Side Story”), lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and composer Jule Styne. The show was originally written for Ethel Merman, and since its Broadway debut in 1959, every diva worth her salt has taken on the part, from Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone to Angela Lansbury and Rosalind Russell (in the film), and yes, Barrett, who is returning to the role after playing Mama Rose at Stoneham Theatre nearly 10 years ago.
“My experience and point of view are different today than they were 10 years ago,” Barrett says. “This character’s struggle is more deeply rooted in me now.”
Rachel Bertone, who is making her directorial debut at the Lyric after working as choreographer with producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos on several shows there, says audiences and actors both come to “Gypsy” with expectations.
“We have to clear the slate,” she says, “and focus on telling the story. The drama comes from the sense of the story as a ticking time bomb. The audience can see it, but Rose can’t. We have to root for her from the beginning.”
Barrett says focusing on telling the story allows her to build the character with each scene.
“It’s not interesting to start at 11. The audience will stop listening,” she says. “Rose is charming, and that’s why people are drawn to her. Of course, she is a master manipulator who created a twisted relationship with her children.”
Laurent’s script and Styne’s music create a stirring musical landscape, says Bertone.
“It’s a big show and an epic story,” she says, “but the advantage of the Lyric is that the audience is so close to the actors we can keep it rooted in the characters and their emotions.”
The challenge, says Barrett, is making sure she builds a character toward a performance worthy of the show.
“I think ‘Gypsy’ is a masterpiece,” says Barrett. “There really was no strong female character before her, and the story takes us through an extraordinary psychological exploration.”
Not to mention some impressive vocal work.
“The biggest challenge of the role is creating a balance between the song and the action,” she says. “I’m going to fight for Rose till the last note. I want to make sure I leave audiences wondering what’s going to happen next.”
Barrett says she always feels she is inhabited by the characters she plays during the run of the show.
“Their personalities do seep into my daily life,” she admits. “Mostly I’m aware, but the only one I struggled with was Joanne [the wryly bitter friend in ‘Company’] because she was so acerbic. I had to pay attention and not let that go too far.”
Bertone says she’s been impressed by the power of Barrett’s performances even in rehearsal.
“Leigh never holds back,” says Bertone. “She does all her preparation before she even enters the building and then is ready to try anything.”
“This is the closest I will come to being an Olympic athlete,” says Barrett.
In a song like “Rose’s Turn,” in which Mama Rose realizes the daughters she has worked so hard for are moving on without her, Barrett says she’s “living every second of it. I’m not thinking about technique. My pulse is around 126 when I come off stage.”
Rose’s story, Barrett says, should resonate with everyone in the room.
“I can’t be anyone but my version of Rose. But I think when you can show this woman’s humanity and vulnerability, people will recognize her, and I think her story can end on a hopeful note.”
Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Sept. 1-Oct. 8. Tickets $29-$81, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.comTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.