Judy Kaye shines in spiffy production of 'Gypsy'

by Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic


From the moment she barrels down the aisle of the 5th Avenue Theatre, shouting "Sing out, Louise!" to her tentative vaudevillian daughter, Judy Kaye's Mama Rose flaunts the right stuff to power a memorable production of Gypsy.

But Kaye seals the deal when she launches into the song "Some People." An authoritative Tony Award winner and Broadway veteran, Kaye belts out Rose's soaring declaration of ambition and defiance (one of many gems in the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score for this lionized 1959 musical) in a powerhouse voice, rich in gleaming brass and cushy warmth.

Of course this gal wouldn't be "content, playing bingo and paying rent" in a Seattle railroad bungalow during the '20s! And, if life had been kinder, you really believe Kaye's indomitable Rose coulda been a contender in vaudeville herself - rather than a barracuda stage mother to her two hapless, less-talented kids, June and Louise.

The real June would become a "legit" actress, June Havoc. Louise would grow up to be the witty, high-class stripper and show-biz personality Gypsy Rose Lee. Arthur Laurents' book for Gypsy is loosely based on Lee's memoir of their arduous youth spent in vaudeville, under their mother's suffocating wing.

But even if Mama Rose spiritually dominates this entertaining, emotionally harrowing show, she's not a solo act. And the 5th Avenue's Gypsy,adroitly staged by New York director Mark Waldrop, is well-acted and snappily dispatched overall - no small feat, given the sprawling tuner's 18 eclectic musical numbers and many set changes. (The very serviceable rented sets and costumes are, respectively, by Michael Anania, and by Lynda Salsbury and Bob Mackie.)

All are essential to the footlight-and-greasepaint saga of Gypsy, which handily honors and sends up corny, frisky pop entertainments of yesteryear, and the camaraderie and hardship of life on the oldtime vaudeville circuit.

Rose's various acts for her "star" daughter June (played as a child by Portia Reiners, and later by sparky Jennifer Cody) are kitschy treats rife with tap-dancing, baton-twirling, and pseudo-patriotic motifs.

And "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," the hilarious number that inducts teenage Louise (excellent Sloan Just) into the world of burlesque, is a bawdy riff on show-biz survival - smartly executed with lots of winking bump-and-grind by Anne Allgood, Carolyn Magoon and Angie Rolfs.

But interlacing Gypsy is an astute, unmawkish tale of family angst.

Not all previous Roses (starting with the original, Ethel Merman) have managed the nifty trick of making this ferocious mama bear both abhorrent and sympathetic.

But Kaye cannily balances those elements, doling out affection and warmth along with near-lethal doses of craven insensitivity. She has moments of tenderness and vulnerability with Stephen Godwin's kind, courtly agent Herbie - making it all the sadder when Rose's blind ambition drives this sweet suitor away.

And, rare among more recent Roses, Kaye sings the part as well as she acts it, giving every deft Sondheim lyric and Styne melody its Merman-esque due. She gives a thrilling account of the do-or-die "Everything's Coming Up Roses," trills a jaunty "Together, Wherever We Go" with Just and Godwin. And she faces unrealized desires and parental failings square-on in the climactic "Rose's Turn," still inventive in its musical jaggedness and psychological savvy.

There are some minor lapses in this Gypsy. The opening scene sags until Kaye arrives. Just seems rather more at home as shy, drab Louise than as sexy, successful Gypsy Rose Lee. And Sharon Halley's dances are pretty basic.

But the overall quality and polish here (and in the previous 5th Avenue show, "1776") are happy omens for Seattle's musical-theater scene. And any rendition of Gypsy, anywhere, would be lucky indeed to have Judy Kaye at the top of the bill.

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