The stage mother and the "Queen of Burlesque": Rebekah Dahl and Laura Gray
Courtesy of Masquerade Theatre

One of the greatest of all musicals, Gypsy (1959), by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, is also one of the most idiosyncratic. There's nothing like it in the Broadway canon. It has no chorus or ensemble dancing, and it focuses on one solitary character — not a very commendable one, either. Gypsy forever changed the course of the American musical, driving the entire art form down the truer psychological path whose groundwork had been laid by Rodgers & Hammerstein. If that classic duo proved that anything on earth is a ripe subject for musical treatment, then Gypsy proves that anyone can be its hero.

In this forever fascinating musical — and you can see all its wonders for yourself in Masquerade Theatre's riveting production — we meet the scary, elemental, ­single-minded Rose, who steamrolls through husbands, family, producers and lesser stage mothers to get her babies onstage. Her favorite child June is going to be a star — even if it kills her. It seems nothing could harm Rose herself. She's immensely likable and full of charm; everyone loves her and admires her spunk and drive, until they stand in her way and she flattens them. These wondrous contradictions make Rose the ultimate role in musical theater, and her singular obsession with show business and fame signals an unmistakably American character.

Gypsy ennobles the seedy, frayed edges of that long-lost, tawdry era of second-rate vaudeville. It's a hardscrabble existence, but Rose will not be deterred. She browbeats managers to book her bad kiddie act and keeps her growing daughters — headliner June and neglected Louise — in perpetual childhood, which inevitably foments revolution. By the end of Act I, the adolescent June flees with an aspiring dancer to escape Rose's suffocating influence. Meanwhile, Rose's milquetoast boyfriend Herbie has an ulcer because of her refusal to marry him and settle down. Betrayed and abandoned by June, Rose won't be assuaged. In her chilling first-act curtain, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," Rose fixates upon mousy Louise as the unlikeliest of meal tickets. Who needs June, when she can make anyone a star? Powerless to stop her, Herbie and Louise embrace in horror as Rose belts out the future that only she foresees.



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Act II finds them broke and booked into the lowest of the low, a burlesque house. Even indomitable Rose has lost her verve and finally relents to Herbie's proposal to make a proper home for Louise, who doesn't even know how old she is. Suddenly, the lead stripper's a no-show and the manager's frantic to find an instant replacement. Rose has never missed a cue in her life. With manic take-charge attitude in overdrive, she pushes Louise into the costume and flings "Let Me Entertain You" at the conductor. Though frightened and confused, Louise spies herself in the dressing-room mirror — the duckling has been transformed. In a series of vignettes, she blossoms into Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, the "Queen of Burlesque." Louise has become a star and her own person, which means that Rose, with her meddling and interference, is superfluous.

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And what of mama? Well, she gets that most famous of sung monologues in all musical history, "Rose's Turn" — this is her mental breakdown, and she's forced to face her demons. It's shattering theater, and Rebekah Dahl, who throughout has equaled the legends who've assayed this role in the past, triumphs. She overlays Rose with unbearable heartache and unbeatable charisma as her dreams shatter and short-circuit. Blowsy and vengeful, she struts and preens, commanding the stage and showing just what makes mama tick — that she could have been a star. Incandescent and dazzling, Dahl eats up this most demanding role as if dining at Tony's.

Fortunately, she has exemplary company, which is no surprise to anyone who knows Masquerade's sumptuous past work. John Gremillion, as spineless Herbie, contrasts wonderfully with Dahl's whirlwind, holding his own during "You'll Never Get Away from Me" and "Together Wherever We Go." Laura Gray, as grown-up Louise, makes a statuesque Miss Lee, the most stunning stripper you'll ever see. In the comedy trio of battle-scarred burlesque troopers, Kristina Sullivan, Allison Sumrall and Libby Evans bump and grind into our hearts and stop the show with "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Adding special talents are Braden Hunt as toe-tapping wannabe Tulsa, June's boyfriend; Beth Hempen as grown June; and Noelle Flores and Maureen Fenninger as young June and Louise. With his trademark love of musicals and how best to stage them, director Phillip K. Duggins channels all the pluses of originator Jerome Robbins, then adds his own magic, thanks to Clay Ratcliff's atmospheric scenic design and Kayleen Clements's richly evocative period costumes.

Without doubt, Masquerade's Gypsy is the best reason to go to the theater this month. It's not just musical theater history onstage, but theater at its most alive.

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