‘Gypsy’ preview: one thorny Rose

The Shedd revives a classic midcentury musical that shows the dark side of celebrity ambition

The overture to Gypsy kicks off the show with one of those rousing, familiar tunes that practically bellows “classic American musical.” And a classic the 1959 show (created by writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and young lyricist Stephen Sondheim, just off his breakthrough with West Side Story) certainly is. But if it’s most famous for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” they’re more like the blossoms the Rolling Stones sang about in “Dead Flowers.” Like the music, the story turns darker, more complicated, more real than its splashy opening number suggests.

Closing this weekend at Eugene’s Shedd Center for the Performing Arts in a production directed by Peg Major, with music directed by Robert Ashens and choreography by Caitlin Christopher, Gypsy delivers the memorable Big Tunes and production numbers that fans of musicals crave — while also limning the depth of character and even darkness rarely found in musical theater to that time, and too seldom since.

‘Gypsy’ closes this weekend at The Shedd in Eugene.

Set in 1920s vaudeville, the story is propelled by an aging, wannabe burlesque queen, “a pioneer woman without a frontier… born too soon and started too late.” It’s at heart a family drama pitting the manipulative stage monster, er, mother’s stifled ambitions and fears against her daughters’ independence and self-esteem as she labors to vault them to the vicarious stage stardom she never achieved herself. In the process, we come to understand the pain that underlies her craving for recognition.

One indicator of any classic’s greatness (whether a play, a composition, a dance) is the variety of interpretations it allows, and in frequent revivals on Broadway and beyond, Momma Rose has been successfully played by a wide variety of acclaimed musical actresses. Though all inevitably stand in the formidable shadow of the original Momma Rose, the volcanic-voiced Ethel Merman (who actually initiated the project after reading the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee), the fact that stars as diverse as Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Rosalind Russell, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone have successfully played the role in frequent revivals demonstrates the character’s depth. In Eugene, Shirley Andress reportedly presents a more vulnerable interpretation of a still-steely character in transition.

So too, do different productions vary the import of the ambiguous ending. More than most works of musical theater including opera, Gypsy catches the complexity of real life — and conveys it in unforgettable songs like “Together Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Get A Gimmick,” “Let Me Entertain You” and of course “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” And that complexity, signaled by an unexpected turn from opening exuberance to eventual disappointment, helped spark a similar transformation in the American musical itself, opening it to an unprecedented kind of psychological complexity that Sondheim and others would continue to develop.

That makes Gypsy a timeless creation, frequently staged. Maybe in this age of “American Idol,” “The Voice,” and a burlesque revival that recently produced a made-in-Portland opera that told the story of Portland striptease artist/author Viva Las Vegas, the time is again ripe for Rose’s demented dreams of ecdysiastic elevation. The notion that you can cure your psychic damage and find glory — or at least self-esteem — by riding the public revelation of superficial parts of yourself to stardom didn’t disappear with vaudeville strippers.

Featuring Shirley Andress as Rose, Clarae Smith, Ward Fairbairn, and Kenady Conforth, Gypsy runs for six performances at the Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $22 to $38, available at the box office at 868 High St. Eugene, 541-434-7000, or online. A version of this story appears in Eugene Weekly.

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