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MAINTAINING GRIT AND HUMANITY: Katherine Vernon slays as Momma Rose in Thalian’s ‘Gypsy’

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“Gypsy” is a show that will attract and entertain Wilmington audience always. It manages to maintain both the grit and humanity of the real story of Gypsy Rose Lee’s life, and is playing now at Thalian Hall.

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Thalian Association brings the iconic musical “Gypsy” to life on the Main Stage of Thalian Hall through next weekend. Based on the memoirs of the Burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, the script was a collaboration of dream team Arthur Laurents’ book, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Mama Rose (Katherine Vernon) is the archetypical stage mother who all subsequent references to stage mothers are based upon. She is a single mother with two small girls and a plan to get them into vaudeville. Blessed with mediocre talent, limitless cuteness and a mother with vision and drive, Baby June (Sara Rudeseal) and sister Louise (Leah Schraff) have one song that is their centerpiece: “May We Entertain You.” Rose builds an entire world around it.

Rudeseal and Schraff are too adorable for words and really could take over the world with their combined charms. Rose picks up an assortment of boys as backup dancers for the act: Andrew Penny, Cooper Herret, Elissa Hall, Rilegh Pederson, and Max Iapalucci. During “Baby June and Her Newsboys—with the aid of strobe lights to simulate the passing of time—choreographer Laura Primavera pulls off a lovely transition to the older Dainty June (Logan Tart) and Louise (Beth Swindell) and the now-adolescent backup dancers: Kellen Hanson, Greg Beddingfield, Beau Mumford, Chris Lewis, Ethan Hall, and Dalton Crocker.

In addition, Rose has picked up Herbie (Troy Rudeseal) as their manager. I’ve long thought Herbie is a particularly challenging role. He is a stand-up guy who does the best he can while loving a woman who is a force of nature. It requires a performer who can balance Rose’s verve, but still let her outshine him, without turning into a total doormat. Not only does Rudeseal deliver, but he turns in a performance showing an especially awkward but paternal relationship with June and Louise. His most heartbreaking scene comes when he watches Rose sell Louise off as a stripper. It’s not just Rudeseal’s face; his whole being is caught in agony beyond words at the betrayal of sacred trust one should have for family life and human decency.

Swindell plays Louise accurately—the shy, wilting violet who can never compete with her little sister for her mother’s love and attention. Part of what makes the role of Gypsy Rose Lee challenging is the transition that has to happen into an alluring, glamorous stripper that could command headlines, top billing and a star’s salary. Even more so, the transition requires the actress to stand up to her mother. Swindell has a lovely singing voice and is a good dancer, but she is an aloof stripper who never quite flirts with the audience.

But Vernon as Rose grabs them by the throat from the very beginning, asserting strength, charm and charisma. It would be a mistake to play Rose as only determined and aggressive; she has to have enough charm and appeal to rally the troops. June, Louise, Herbie, and the boys must continue to follow her and help her make doors open in the world of vaudeville. Vernon really turns in a tour de force. She captivates, from “Some People”—the exposition song in which we learn the scope of Rose’s determination for her girls and a little of what has brought her to this point of view—to her duet with Rudeseal about falling in love, “Small World.” But for her two big solos, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn,” Vernon sells it.

She has big shoes to fill: The role was written for Ethel Merman. Since, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone have joined the list of stars to bring Rose to life. In real life Rose was a powerhouse of psychosis who fired a pistol in a police station at the young man with whom Dainty June eloped. For the musical she has to be more than scary; she has to have brass that women of that time were not expected to have. She also must make the audience root for her because she is the story of the show. Without her, these girls would have nice, normal lives and go to school. But they don’t.

June eventually runs away from Rose to seek freedom and some level of normalcy. Louise just can’t fill the empty void of the loss of June—though she tries.  “Madame Rose’s Toreadorables” shows Rose trying to revamp the act without June, putting Louise in the lead role. Now, instead of backup boy dancers, there are beautiful girls framing the drab Louise (Beth Corvino, Leslie Pierce, Chelsea Nowell, Jennifer Roden, Samantha Herrick, and Sydney Smith Martin). Vernon’s Rose has the Svengali-like ability to spin her daughter’s mind around whenever she wants. When she starts working her snake charm to get Louise to do the star-slot stripper, it set my teeth on edge, watching spellbound. Vernon must collapse after every show because she gives so much of herself on stage; it is hard to imagine there is anything left to carry her legs out of the building.
Terry Collins’ sets are a wonderful playground for the actors—ranging from the glamorous world of elegantly draped theatre curtains to the crummy run-down world of burlesque dressing rooms and flop house hotels, all of which counter balance the suburban decency of Rose’s childhood home.

“Gypsy” is a show that will attract an audience always—and for good reason. It manages to maintain both the grit and humanity of the real story of Gypsy Rose Lee’s life, while glossing over some of the more sensational aspects (like the two deaths attributed to Rose’s hand, for example). It is a story about a single mother, making her way in a man’s world at a time when she had even fewer options than she would today. Or is it a story about child exploitation? In a way, yes, it is. At its core, the story is about mothers, daughters and dreams, a fraught and difficult struggle to know if you are loved for who you are or for what you can provide.

Through April 9, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. or Sun., 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $15-$30 •

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