Strong Mama Rose propels 'Gypsy' Irrepressible: Theatre on the Hill succeeds with its production of the Jerome Robbins musical based on the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

August 03, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

An article in yesterday's Today section misstated the name of the actress portraying the trumpet-playing stripper in the production of "Gypsy" at Theatre on the Hill. The actress is Dine Mongold.

The Sun regrets the error.

Although the musical "Gypsy" is named for stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the main character is actually Gypsy's mother. A production doesn't stand a chance without a strong Mama Rose (the archetypal stage mother), and at Theatre on the Hill, brassy Valerie J. di-Lorenzo is definitely a strong presence. She badgers, cajoles, pushes and, perhaps most important, belts out her songs with gusto.

Her brashness also establishes the proper contrast between Rose and her meek older daughter, Louise (played as a child by Allison Weiner and as a young woman by Liz Bennett).


It's Louise who goes on to become Gypsy Rose Lee, whom the musical -- book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim -- portrays as a stripper whose only talent is her ability to project an elegant image while taking off her clothes.

Bennett conveys elegance, as well as her character's initial shyness, and her wistful delivery of Louise's birthday lament, "Little Lamb," is the show's most tender moment. But her sister, June, is supposed to have the real talent, and Sara Weiner (Allison's younger sister) and Meaghan Kyle sparkle as Baby June at different ages.

Children and dogs are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and "Gypsy" has both. Indeed, it's tough to imagine a more precious scene than that of Sara Weiner, minus her front teeth, twirling two batons while decked out as the Statue of Liberty in one of Baby June's vaudeville numbers.

Yet "Gypsy" is much more than a backstage biography in which cute kids grow up to be stars. It's even more than a cautionary tale about the perils of show business.

Most of all, it's a warped love story about a woman who mistakes her own aspirations for both familial and romantic love. In the process, she drives away her daughters and the kind-hearted agent (empathetically played by Jonathan Dunski) who loves her.

The one flaw in diLorenzo's performance is she delivers Rose's final number with almost joyous gusto, instead of as an eerie, overdue lesson learned by a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

The central feature of designer Ira Domser's set is a large ramp, with backstage trappings, situated in the middle of the stage. This design may be intended as a constant reminder of Rose's omnipresent show-business ambitions, but it limits the space available to director Josh Selzer and choreographer Julie M. Herber.

"Gypsy" was one of the musicals originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who died last week. And even in this modest production, Robbins' salute to show biz is irrepressible, particularly in such numbers as the comic "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," in which three strippers -- headed by tough, spirited Elizabeth van den Berg's trumpet-playing Tessie -- share the tricks of the trade. Theatre on the Hill may not be Broadway, but it's nice to have a bit of Robbins-abilia in the area.

Show times for "Gypsy" at Theatre on the Hill, Western Maryland College, Alumni Hall, Westminster, are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $10-$18. Call 1-410-857-2448.

Irony at core of 'Bards'

"The Bards of Scranton" marks the Baltimore Playwrights Festival debut of playwright John W. Teahan, and from the opening moments of this romantic comedy, it's clear he has a theatrical flair.

The play begins with two 20-something men facing the audience and finishing each other's sentences as they recite what turn out to be salacious fabricated letters they compose for their employer, a pornographic magazine in Scranton, Pa.

No sooner does Ben Thomas' Browning begin a statement about a woman seducing a monk than Gareth Kelly's Grady completes the thought with his account of a teen-age boy and an all-female troupe of Norwegian ice skaters.

The scene sets the light tone for the evening, as well as establishing a structure punctuated with passages of direct address.

At one point, Grady complains there's no irony in his life, but irony is the core of Teahan's play. Though Grady and Browning are paid to concoct romantic -- albeit smutty -- scenarios, they are considerably less adept at real-life romance.

Grady, played by Kelly as a gawky average Joe, is in the seventh week of his relationship with Amelia (Ali Silbert), his longest relationship yet. Browning, played by Thomas as flippant but insecure, describes himself as "hopelessly confused." He's attracted to another man but completely thrown when that man kisses him.

Fell's Point Corner Theatre's production, directed by Tony Gallahan, includes several notable supporting performances, particularly those of self-assured Steven Lenet as Amelia's former boyfriend and bubble-headed Kristen Brennan as another friend.

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