Gypsy is an epic musical. Like Shakespeare vs. Brecht vs. Godzilla epic. Mama Rose (Carla McDonald) is the show-tune-singing King Lear of stage moms and a pragmatic Mother Courage tirelessly stomping across the gooey battlefields we call love and show business. Set mostly against a background of the Great Depression, the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical walks a fine line between high drama and high camp, serving up gritty object lessons about survival, obsession, and terrible parenting skills. It does all that to the fanfare of cheeky trumpets and the growl of lewd trombones. When Gypsy cooks, it's a hot ticket. Even Playhouse on the Square's sturdy if somewhat soulless revival has moments when it's a little bit epic too.
Gypsy is an origin story, as blunt and deliberate as you'll find in any comic book. Super-stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Leah Beth Bolton) gets her full powers when she finally stands up to Mama Rose, who pushed her daughter into vaudeville first and then into the seedy bump-and-grind world of burlesque.
"Nobody laughs at me," Lee says with the cool, disquieting confidence of a young woman who has been looked at under a spotlight for her entire life but who was never really seen, let alone appreciated, by anybody, least of all her mother, until she finally showed a little skin.
"I laugh [at me] first," she further asserts, girding herself against any further hurt. "Me, from Seattle! Me, with no education! Me, with no talent, as you kept reminding me my whole life! Well, Mama, look at me now! I'm a star!"
And boy was she. But as big as Gypsy Rose Lee may have been on the Minsky strip circuit, this isn't really her show. Gypsy belongs to the unsinkable Mama Rose, a role that musical-theater performers measure themselves against like dramatic actors do with Hamlet.
McDonald is an extraordinary vocalist and a gifted actor with a knack for taking on characters that are larger than life, but she never seems completely comfortable as Gypsy's infamous "stage mother from hell." Although she's more than adequate in the role and fully in her element belting out showstoppers like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn," she never fully makes the part her own, and you don't have to listen all that closely to hear bits of Ethel Merman and Tyne Daly bubbling up here and there in McDonald's phrasing.
Bolton and Caroline Simpson are similarly fine as Gypsy Rose and her sibling rival, Dainty June. The always-solid Barclay Roberts is typically affable and effective as Herbie, the failed father figure and would-be suitor to Mama Rose. But once you move beyond the chorus where Dave Landis, David Foster, and Kim Sanders do some fantastic character work, none of the emotions ever seem big enough, and few of the relationships are as complex as they could be.
Jordan Nichols has proven himself repeatedly as a director, and his recent production of the relentlessly dark rock musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson at Rhodes College was a season highlight. But Nichols' Gypsy, unfolding on Mark Guirguis' unmemorable set and washed out by John Horan's atypically flat lighting, can be as bleak and colorless as depression. Horan is usually Playhouse on the Square's secret weapon, executing sumptuous, color-saturated lighting designs that frame scenes perfectly, smoothing over a world of imperfections, and improving everything he touches.
An excellent band, assembled and led with brass and sass by Renee Kemper, is prominently featured onstage but never really allowed to live inside the world of the play.
Even if the production was too colorless and restrained for my taste, Playhouse on the Square does earn bonus points for scheduling Gypsy to open on Mother's Day weekend.