In musical theatre, only a handful of shows never grow stale, and two of them involve a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. And yes, the other one is GYPSY. With songs everyone knows and loves, a call-out line that few can resist employing in other circumstances ("Sing out, Louise!"), and boundless good humor, as well as a dazzling score by Jule Styne, it's little wonder that GYPSY is sometimes credited as the single greatest of 20th century musicals. As directed by Marc Robin and performed at Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, it appears to remain absolutely secure in that title.
Frank Rich has called GYPSY Broadway's answer to "King Lear"; that may be a bit off, however, since William Shakespeare seems never to have met that most deadly of all parents, the stage mother. And Rose, more than ably played by Denise Whelan, is the original stage mother from hell, the one whose own frustrations at never having made it to the stage herself, force her into ruining her children's lives to live out her own through them. Whelan's performance is a triumph of grit and determination, from the moment she pronounces that "anyone that stays home is dead!" to her breakdown and partial reconciliation with Louise (now Gypsy Rose Lee) at the end. Her "Some People" comes out as an anthem to independence, even as her Rose misses that she is turning her own daughters into marionettes pulled by her strings. And her "Rose's Turn" at the end is a marvelous piece of recognition that she really has forced her daughters into the life she wanted for herself, and has lost both of them in the process, despite her very real but flawed and inadequately expressed love for them.
According to Whelan, "I'm having a ball. Playing Rose is a dream job, and it doesn't get better than Marc [Robin] directing."
Kudos to Robin, incidentally, for not changing the ending of the play as is so often done in recent productions. The original ending of tentative reconciliation, which has been kept in this performance, is far better than the 1974 and 2008 Broadway revivals' total rejection of Rose by Louise, who laughs at her and walks away after "Rose's Turn". (It also fits the "Lear" parent-from-hell parallel far better, for those who find that the metaphor fits.)
Kim Carson has the unenviable but ultimately successful task of playing Louise to Whelan's Rose; it's not easy being the second fiddle to one of the strongest female stage characters in musical theatre, but she accomplishes it with relative ease. Carson realizes that "it's almost like playing two different characters in the same play – the tomboy and the burlesque queen." Her transformation from graceless and apparently figureless tomboy playing a vaudeville character younger than she really is, to the elegant celebrity stripper known as Gypsy Rose Lee at the end is believable, especially in her first fumbling efforts to please a burlesque audience while remaining ladylike. Louise's native intelligence (which in her later years as an author, playwright, dog breeding expert and television host Lee displayed to full advantage) shines through even the most horrifying overage-juvenile stage routines forced upon her by Rose.
Greg Wood as Herbie, agent to Baby June and to Louise, and Rose's erstwhile love interest, is convincing in his love for Rose and the girls and his frustration in trying to rein in Rose's efforts to dominate her daughters' lives in the quest to make them stars. One of the challenges in playing Herbie is that this is a man whose role, whose life, is in the background of a stronger character's, and it can be difficult not to over-play him. Wood's performance is finely restrained, not imposed upon the scenes he's in, yet those scenes would be lacking without him. His trio with Whelan and Carson in "Together Wherever We Go" is a delightful performance of one of the great traditional favorites of the show.