Mama Dearest

A stage mother from hell kicks butt in Weathervane's Gypsy.

Gypsy Weathervane Community Playhouse, 1301 Weathervane Lane, Akron Through July 20, 330-836-2626
Alana Rader invests Louise-Gypsy with genuine feeling.
Alana Rader invests Louise-Gypsy with genuine feeling.

Picture a mother who doesn't allow her two small daughters to attend school, forces them to continually travel and work while living in piss-in-the-sink flophouses, makes them share a crowded bedroom with a succession of older boys, and then claims parental success when one of the girls becomes a stripper. These days, that tale of offspring abuse would lead to a two-parter on Montel, a wall-to-wall Dateline, and a perp walk to a cell alongside Sharon Smith. But decades ago, in memory of an even earlier time when getting your kids work in run-down vaudeville houses was a commendable goal, that story became the renowned stage musical, Gypsy. Funny how perspectives change.

We come here not to indict Gypsy, but to praise it. Because once you look past the borderline-felonious subject matter, it's one hell of a songfest, which Ethel Merman made famous with her original rendition of the first-act closer of all time, "Everything's Coming Up Roses." This is a complex show, with multiple set changes, elaborate production numbers, a gaggle of kid actors, and a live lamb -- so there's plenty that can go kaput. But the Weathervane Community Playhouse, under the skilled direction of Nancy Cates, pulls it all together and offers up such a damn good show, one is frustrated when it falls just short of great.

Virtually every stage show has an "entry ticket," a mandatory element that a theater must have in order to even consider attempting a certain production. With Gypsy, you'd better have a woman who can handle the exhausting role of Mama Rose and belt (a bit) like Merman, or you're toast. Thankfully, Weathervane has solid Cynthia P. Jahn, who has the pipes, the 'tude, and the stevedore stride to make a memorable Rose. She's so good that it seems almost callous to mention that, by emphasizing her character's sensitivity, this Rose lacks the selfish sheen of fixated delusion that must be present to drive such stage-mom monomania.

Gypsy is inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the sophisticated stripper who grew up at the end of Rose's leash as Mom led her and her younger, more talented sister June on a countrywide quest for a starring spot on the fading vaudeville circuit. Baby June (who grew up to become actress June Havoc) was always the featured performer, with her shy sister Louise performing as backup. But all that changed when June, as a young adult, eloped with a chorus boy and Mom focused her manic energies on the hapless Louise, destined to morph into the soon-to-be-topless Gypsy.

Actually, Gypsy Rose Lee revealed very little as a stripper, teasing the audience with a tiny flash of flesh here and there before draping herself in the stage curtains and exiting with an almost demure "Did I see what I think I just saw?" blackout. Alana Rader is fine as the mousy but game Louise, who's content to play second fiddle to her platinum-tressed sister. Rader handles her solo, "Little Lamb," with tender affection, and while her transition to the sultry Gypsy is not wholly believable, she invests Louise-turned-Gypsy with genuine feeling. Marissa Montigney, cute as a porcelain doll, makes June a credibly -- and intentionally -- awful headliner. The two sisters combine their excellent voices on the lovely duet, "If Momma Was Married." Almost eternally optimistic Herbie -- Rose's theatrical agent, all-purpose gofer, and doomed suitor -- is played with soft-hearted gruffness by Henry C. Bishop. The show's featured comedy song, about two-bit strippers and their stage gimmicks, catches fire when Karen L. Wood struts her faux gladiator shtick. And almost all the smaller roles are handled with style, including Mark A. Zimmerman as the Krusty-the-Clown-like Uncle Jocko and the diapered little lamb as itself.

As a top-rank community theater, Weathervane often succeeds where some local, so-called professional theaters fail -- by casting its shows meticulously and handing the proceedings to wise supervisors such as director Cates, musical director Ron Hazelett, and choreographer Jeffrey Graham Hughes. In fact, the only glaring weakness in this ambitious production is a clearly underachieving pit orchestra. Weathervane is also to be praised for its exceptional, show-specific lobby displays. During intermission, you can peruse a long article tracing the history of Gypsy, along with several photo biographies of famous strippers of Gypsy's era, including the wonderfully monikered Little Egypt, Tempest Storm, and Blaze Starr.

Gypsy ends with symbolic power on a bare stage, as Rose writhes under the invisible thumb of her unrealized dreams of stardom, singing "Rose's Turn." The torment of a person's unfulfilled destiny can provide this show an aura of almost Shakespearean depth, and although the talented actor Jahn just misses grabbing that gold ring, her bullying and cajoling journey is still a delight to see.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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