Gypsy is based on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, but the show is centered on Rose — her fiercely stubborn stage mother who's been portrayed by powerhouses including Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone in film and stage versions. Unfortunately Lisa Picone, the Rose in Theater 13's production of the musical at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, was battling a sinus infection during opening weekend's Sunday matinee (as evidenced by coughs between lines and coming from backstage), and it hindered her performance. But talented supporting cast members brought energy to the faithful rendition of the classic musical.
The story begins as Rose tries to sell a vaudeville act featuring her young daughters, the doll-like Baby June (Savannah Fouchi) and her shy sister Louise (Tess Fouchi), who often fades into the background while her sister squeals, kicks and does splits in the spotlight. As teens, the girls are sick of peddling the same act — a gangling Louise (Elyse McDaniel) is still timid and relegated to roles like a farm cow or Uncle Sam; June, now called Dainty June (Courtney Kattengell), yearns to ditch the hair ribbons and pink dresses for a serious acting career. A highlight of the show is when the sisters duet on a pitch-perfect rendition of "If Mama Was Married," where Kattengell's bright, urgent tone pairs well with McDaniel's warm voice, which was revealed earlier in "Little Lamb."
The girls' agent, and Rose's sort-of love interest, Herbie (Joel Rainey) is a reliable counterpart to Rose, who relentlessly pursues her daughters' — or really, her own — dreams despite glaring setbacks. Picone brings a hypnotic quality to her character's more delusional moments, especially during the first act's pivotal climax.
The once-shy Louise eventually finds success as a burlesque performer after an initiation by a trio of dancers (Katie Lynn Cotaya, Shelley Rucker and Janie Heck) who assure her that burlesque is just stripping with a gimmick. Heck, especially, has a brassy voice that stands out even in small roles.
McDaniel, who brought a doe-eyed nervousness to the shyer version of Louise, effectively transforms the character into an elegant performer who finally stands up to her mother.
The show lacked Rose's terrifying determination in classics like "Some People," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" — where her arc's sad catharsis is realized — because of Picone's illness. But, perhaps borrowing from Rose's doggedness, Picone nonetheless powered through a challenging role and show. — LAUREN LABORDE