Mother-Daughter Tract: Momma Rose and Louise stake out emotional turf.
Mother-Daughter Tract: Momma Rose and Louise stake out emotional turf.

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The first time I sobbed out loud at Signature Theatre was in 1996—Eric Schaeffer’s production of Passion, in that bumper-plating factory that was the company’s home back then. I remember calling my colleague Bob Mondello from the pay phone in the lobby—the pay phone—and breaking down while I tried to tell him how gorgeous it had been.

And the next? The Sunday I went to see Signature’s current production for the second time.

Forget the argument that Gypsy is the great American musical. Or even the great American showbiz musical. (Jesus, how many of those have we seen? Show people love to write shows about show people.)

Never mind. Gypsy, given what director Joe Calarco and leading lady Sherri Edelen are doing with it at Signature, reveals itself to be the great American feminist musical. It’s a show that, on the surface, is a bitter comedy about the strictures Depression-era America put on its women. Calarco and his star have dug into the story’s underbelly to demonstrate that Gypsy is a Medea-sized tragedy about the toll two women—women born out of their time—take on each other.

Let’s dispatch with the basics: lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, so you know it’s a smart show. Music by Jule Styne, who scored some musicals you may have heard of—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells Are Ringing. (Jon Kalbfleish’s immaculately disciplined orchestra—it sounds larger than its 11 pieces—makes subtle but unmistakable sense of Styne’s wonderfully brassy, richly thematic work.) Book by Arthur Laurents, notorious genius and crankypants. (Trust me, I interviewed him, and he was both.)

So, good foundation. Adding to that, it’s based on the story of a real-life star: Gypsy Rose Lee, burlesque phenomenon of the ’30s and such. So: sex. Which, I’m told, sells.

Now pile on the fact that Momma Rose—the nervy, neurotic, nonstop stage mother who is the central character of this magnificent musical, never mind its title—is the role Sherri Edelen was born to play. She’s playing it to the hilt, too, and singing it to the rafters. This is some of musical theater’s most punishing repertoire, big angry shout-songs like “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and Edelen delivers the goods with guts, with passion, true-voiced, with a wrenching emotional availability and a moment-to-moment investment that made me, at the curtain call, want to wrap one of Broadway’s biggest monsters in a giant hug and tell her I understood why she was such a horror. I stood, I cheered. I clapped—big, broad claps.

This, mind you, is after Momma Rose has ruined the lives of both of her daughters—reluctant vaudeville kid performers well past their sell-by date, who, in the too-often tossed-off song “If Momma Was Married,” remind us that if Gypsy is dominated by Momma Rose, it’s on some level also a show about whether June (Nicole Mangi) and Louise (Maria Rizzo) have ever really been able to rely on one another. There’s a sweet, vulnerable, beautiful moment of connection in that song that, if you’re listening closely, and especially if you know what’s coming for them, will bruise your heart.

Even if you don’t know what’s around the corner, you’ll still be delighted (and then saddened) by the storyline involving a chorus boy named Tulsa (the fresh-faced, smooth-moving Vincent Kempski). Watch Rizzo’s Louise watch him in the charming “All I Need Is the Girl,” and tell me you don’t ache a bit; it’s one more missed connection in a show that’s a sea of them.

The production’s emphasis on the humanity of these characters extends to Herbie, the beleaguered salesman-turned-manager who’s Momma Rose’s doormat of a man; Mitchell Hébert, not always the most naturalistic of actors, tempers his performance beautifully here, layering the man’s diffidence with hints of throttled exasperation and warm affection for the woman who bullies him so. When he finally gives up on her, it’s genuinely painful.

By that point, of course, the romance of “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” and the jaunty pluck of “Together Wherever We Go” have long faded. June? She’s gone, too, leaving poor Louise to be the lone vessel for Momma Rose’s frustrated ambitions—and Rose doesn’t blink when a booking brings them not to a vaudeville house, but to a burlesque hall, where the options are strip or starve. The bawdy backstage fun of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” delivered with gusto by Sandy Bainum, Donna Migliaccio, and Tracy Lynn Olivera, is only a momentary diversion from the gruesomeness of watching a woman persuade her shrinking-violet daughter to disrobe in the spotlight.

That Louise will turn out to have a knack for the strip—that the corner Rose pushes her into will turn out to be a position of power for the newly christened Gypsy Rose Lee—is Gypsy’s ultimate irony, the shock that finally cracks its antiheroine’s hard shell. Cue “Rose’s Turn,” the show’s famous breakdown number, in which she confesses her selfishness and lacerates herself with the knowledge that she’s brutalized her kids; Edelen delivers the number in a voice as strong—and somehow simultaneously as brittle—as anything I’ve ever seen on the Signature stage. Her performance is an outright triumph.

Calarco’s production is, too. If there’s anything this Gypsy proves, it’s that if Signature’s trustees are planning for the future—for the day Eric Schaeffer, who broke my heart so long ago, decides to move on—they could do worse than to look in Joe Calarco’s direction.