Mark S. Howard
During the overture to “Gypsy’’ at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, before she has sung or spoken a word, Leigh Barrett, playing the deluded yet unstoppable Mama Rose, walks onto the stage and looks about her with an expression that communicates a message seemingly emanating from character and actress alike: “I got this.’’
Indeed she does. Having added luster to many a musical in Boston over the years, Barrett carries this Lyric Stage production — which is sometimes in need of carrying — with the avidity and assurance of a supremely skilled performer who knows she is tackling the role of a lifetime.
What King Lear is for Shakespearean actors, Mama Rose is for actresses who specialize in musical theater: a summit that the boldest and most ambitious among them are determined to scale once they reach the right age. The equivalent to Lear’s loss-maddened howls on the heath is “Rose’s Turn,’’ an end-of-show outpouring of anguish and fury and regret in “Gypsy’’ that Rose delivers when her ceaseless striving for showbiz glory seems to have cost her everything: her children, her lover, even her precarious hold on sanity.
It is her lover, Herbie (Steven Barkhimer), who describes Rose as “a pioneer woman without a frontier,’’ and there are likewise no firm boundaries when it comes to portrayals of her. Memorable Roses have been created by performers who did not possess a first-rate singing voice (Tyne Daly) or in-depth acting ability (Ethel Merman). Barrett has both. Like Patti LuPone (another great actress-singer) in the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy,’’ Barrett gives us a Rose who is not a gorgon but a fundamentally loving mother who goes off the rails because of that quintessential American disease: the lust for stardom.
That particular malady is more in evidence today than ever, of course; look no further than the misnamed phenomenon known as “reality’’ TV. But it is the double window onto the past that makes 1959’s “Gypsy’’ unique. As a splendid artifact of the so-called Golden Age of the Broadway musical, “Gypsy’’ allows us to savor the craftsmanship that went into the best shows of that era while also evoking, through its story, the fading twilight of the vaudeville era.
So we watch Rose drag her daughters and the rest of her bedraggled troupe from city to city in the 1920s and 1930s in “Gypsy,’’ which was loosely inspired by the memoirs of the famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. From that raw material Arthur Laurents crafted one of the most incisive books ever written for a musical. The composer Jule Styne contributed music of verve and variety, and the lyrics were penned by a young Stephen Sondheim, who had made his name two years earlier with “West Side Story’’ (for which Laurents also wrote the book). The vaudeville parodies in “Gypsy,’’ along with the stripper anthem “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,’’ showcase Sondheim’s gift for capturing throwback genres and styles, a gift that would later be central to his “Follies’’ (1971).
Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, the Lyric Stage production doesn’t fully hit its stride until Act 2, after some underwhelming patches in Act 1. Even granting that Rose is supposed to be bigger and louder than anyone else on stage, the supporting characters don’t register with enough distinction. As Rose’s timid daughter Louise, who will eventually overcome her shyness and command the stage as Gypsy Rose Lee, Kirsten Salpini is capable enough, but she doesn’t really convey Louise’s restlessness or the hidden spark in the character that will burst into flame near the end of the musical.
Much the same is true of Kira Troilo as June, reluctant star of the family’s vaudeville act, on whom Rose’s hopes for showbiz success initially ride. Even the redoubtable Barkhimer is a bit too recessive as Herbie, who doubles as the act’s agent and Rose’s beleaguered boyfriend. Anything but recessive, however, is Kathy St. George, who is flat-out hilarious as the trumpet-playing stripper Mazeppa, a role St. George plays while tricked out in a Roman gladiator outfit, complete with a red-plumed helmet.
Barrett brings shattering force to the climactic “Rose’s Turn,’’ providing an emotional bookend to her electric performance of a far more optimistic number, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,’’ at the end of Act 1. Earlier, the actress half-belts, half-spits out the scornfully defiant “Some People,’’ in which Rose declares her independence from conventional bourgeois expectations (“Goodbye to blueberry pie’’) while mapping out a road less taken, but at least potentially more rewarding, for herself: “Some people sit on their butts/ Got the dream — yeah, but not the guts!’’
That’s something Leigh Barrett could never be accused of, and “Gypsy’’ gives us another reason to be thankful for it.
Book by Arthur Laurents. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Music by Jule Styne.
Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone.
Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Oct. 8. Tickets start at $25. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
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