Vicarious stardom

Mama Rose shoves her girls to the top in Riverfront Theatre’s Gypsy

Kick up your heels with the cast of <i>Gypsy</i> at the Riverfront Theatre.

Kick up your heels with the cast of Gypsy at the Riverfront Theatre.

Photo By David Robert

Rated 4.0

Yes, it entertained me! Yes, it made me smile! First, you’ve got a can’t-miss musical score with Stephen Sondheim lyrics and Jule Styne tunes, including “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Let Me Entertain You.” Combine that with solid performances from local talent in an intimate theater setting and you’ve got a class act with the Riverfront Theatre’s production of the musical Gypsy.

When this bittersweet Broadway musical opened in 1959, it was an enormous success. It ran for more than 700 performances, starring Ethel Merman as Mama Rose, the mother of all stage mothers. Those are large pipes for any singer to fill, but as the Riverfront’s Mama Rose, Karen Chandler does enough stomping, gesticulating, manipulating and flouncing to vicariously achieve vaudevillian stardom through her two daughters, June (Iolanda Edsall) and Louise (Amber Hurley), who later morphs into the famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. Chandler’s voice is strong and powerful without overpowering, and her brassy, matronly ‘tude accents a fierce determination to get one of her girls to the top. Tony DeGeiso plays Herbie, her hen-pecked, emasculated agent/boyfriend, with appropriate stoicism.

Edsall’s June is a leggy gymnast with blond Shirley Temple curls who kick-splits and cartwheels her way across the stage. The character contrasts nicely with Hurley’s performance as the mousy, demure sister Louise. The two harmonize beautifully in “If Momma Was Married.” Also worthy of note is the snappy footwork of the male dancers, known as the Farmboys, and especially the crisp, exuberant dancing of Tulsa (Hal DuBiel).

The performance envelops the audience in this intimate 99-seat theater, as characters enter, exit and address one another on stage from the aisle. When Louise is being tutored in the finer points of stripping by mentors Tessie, Mazeppa and Electra in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” she sits in the front row of the audience so that we feel we are part of these educational efforts. The strippers’ costumes (rated “family risque” by director Bob Barsanti) and Gypsy Rose’s gowns are wonderfully bright and creative. Gypsy Rose’s strip tease—which consists merely of the removal of a pair of long gloves—is more dramatic than sensual.

Placing the band—an upright piano, drum, saxophone and clarinet—just to the right of the stage is a great vaudevillian touch. At times, however, the dialogue is overpowered by the music. Cleverly distracting the audience from set changes between scenes is a saucy seductress in a sequined body suit, who vamps around the stage holding aloft a cardboard sign announcing the next scene.

For me, part of the experience of visiting another era included making my way through the smoky, noisy gaming pit of the Cal-Neva while looking for the theater. But one of the trickiest parts of the Gypsy experience turns out to be finding the Riverfront Theatre, which is not in the Cal-Neva’s main casino. Two change cashiers and a security guard were somewhat helpful in directing me to the Cal-Neva Nevadan Tower across the street. A small poster for Gypsy taped on the front window is the only external signage indicating the theater is inside the hotel.

Upon entering the lobby, however, the cool pastel colors of the carpeting and warm beige walls give the feel of a post-war hotel. The search is worth the effort, and you know, I had a real good time, yes sir!