The story of Gypsy Rose Lee is an interesting study of a mother driven, and a daughter who made her way because of, and in spite of, Mom. In the Broadway version, Ethel Merman embodied Mama Rose. In the film version, Rosalind Russell took on the role and won the 1963 Golden Globe for Best Actress for her portrayal. Tacoma Little Theatre opened "Gypsy" this weekend and the show should be on the calendar for any South Sound theater lover. Dinner at Shake, Shake, Shake, and a night with Gypsy Rose Lee sound like a winning parlay ticket.
While Rosalind Russell's performance was award-worthy to be sure and garnered a Best Actress Globe for her effort, the lead role is truly the Mama Rose character. She drives the show like she drives her kids. Stephanie Leeper was chosen by Director, Chris Serface, to play Mama and as one play-attendee said at intermission, "Stephanie knows how to play loud and brassy. She has that down."
Truer words were not spoken Saturday evening as Ms. Leeper is one of the area's truly fine performers. She sings like Ethel Merman, but the performance never falls into the area of cheap mimicry. She embodies Mama's desperate ambition with wild abandon! At times, the audience shakes its collective head in dismay over Mama's missteps. Other times, the audience aches for her as she watches her children stray from a path Mama considers appropriate. When the time comes this summer for awards to be considered, expect Stephanie Leeper to be in the mix.
The same might be said for Cassie Jo Fastabend as Gypsy. A performance is often judged by how far a character travels emotionally from beginning to end. The talented Ms. Fastabend travels thousands of miles in the course of three hours. She shows up on stage as a caterpillar startled by every word or touch. The caterpillar finishes the night a poised and sexy butterfly at peace with her position in the performance world. When Ms. Fastabend, as the fully grown-up Gypsy Rose Lee, looks over her shoulder and winks, the temperature of the joint goes up five degrees.
No one in the South Sound plays "nice guy" better than Jed Slaughter. As Mama Rose's forever fiance', Herbie, he is both a booking agent and a surrogate parent to Rose's children. When he eventually makes the move, he must make the audience hurt for him. Mr. Slaughter does an outstanding job.
In a cast that totals 27, there are more good performances than there is room to describe them. Three of the youngsters on stage deserve mention, though. Alexandria Bray, as Baby June, performed admirably. Her athletic ability and performance timing is exceptional. Summer Mays plays the role of Louise as a youth; she does a very fine job. Charlie Stevens plays the dual role of Charlie and L.A. Mr. Stevens is an audience favorite who did nothing to dispel his popularity.
Caiti Burke makes her Puget Sound theater debut in three roles the most memorable as Electra. Resident costume designer Michele Graves gets an assist there. Ms. Burke, Emilie Rommel Shimkus and Kathy Kluska did nicely as fellow performers in the world of Gypsy Rose Lee.
Set designer, Blake R. York, has been busy for the last few months as a man of the cloth in Lakewood Playhouse's "Doubt." There is no "doubt" he did a fine job with this set; the clever way in which it rotates in and out of position is fun to watch.
Tacoma Little Theatre is turning 100 years old two years from now and one can almost feel them ramping up their game. "Gypsy" is a great night on the town and theater fans should consider donning their lighted bustier, and as the sandwich board outside the theater says, "Come see the show!"
Tickets for "Gypsy" are available on the Tacoma Little Theater ticketing page, or by calling 252-272-228.