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Gypsy is Roses, Roses, all Roses

Musical review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Jun 17th, 2016

Karen Ziemba as Mama Rose. Photo by Randy O'Rourke. Front page teaser photo of Kyra Kennedy (left) as Louise (Gypsy Rose Lee) and Julia Hemp as Dainty June also by Randy O'Rourke, as well as his front page rotator photo of Karen Ziemba.

Karen Ziemba, the most recent Tony Award winner for best performer in a musical (Contact), holds forth at Sharon Playhouse. Not only is she a consummate actress, but she is THE VOICE. A taste of Broadway has landed in Sharon, Ct. I would not recommend missing this well-directed performance by Richard Stafford.

While the first act presents a genial, low-key satire on the inanity and pleasurable silliness of 1920’s Great White Way vaudeville, the threadbare stage cliché is merely a set-up for the personal drama of the second act which displays dramatic musical probing of mother-daughter conflict—something unusual in 1959 and as relevant today as it has ever been. The delicious, reverberating ironies of the first act’s closing song, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” sets the table, with Karen Ziemba letting it all out from the bottom of her diaphragm.

Young Kyra Kennedy as the non-aspiring actress manages to depict shyness, diffidence, and inept timidity before this unnoticed caterpillar blossoms into the burlesque butterfly (Gypsy Rose Lee) who defies and exploits the more sordid conventions of burlesque by discovering the gimmick of glove-stripping rather than body-stripping. Is not show-business the brassy trick of turning weaknesses into assets? This chaste production is children-friendly and there are a dozen dancing and singing child thespians in this lively production.

Rufus Collins (Herbie) plays the abused and tormented lover with tenacious aplomb. Another fabulous major asset in this production is Alex Dorf (Tulsa) who can sing, act, and tap dance up such a storm that the stage appears too small to hold him in his showcase solo; Julie Hemp (Dainty June) can also hoof it, sing, and act the blonde bombshell role so well there appears to be an unsolved, sullen mystery behind the mask; Joseph Allen performs a creditable role as Angie. This semi-divine trinity was lifted wholesale from the Musical Theatre program of Penn State, where something wonderful must be happening. Even up-and-coming talent, Nick Case (L.A.), is transferring from NYU’s Steinhardt School to Penn State.

Among burlesque acts, Cathy Sakolove (Mazzepa) stands out, not only for her acting, but impassioned nuance in voice. One of my favorite songs in the play remains “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” (sung by Sakolove). I think this song has influenced nearly every painter, poet, and musician ever since—on a par with its canonical stature in prickly advertising.

The concluding number, “Rose’s Turn,” sung by Karen Ziemba is such a classic show-stopper that directors have recently tinkered with the brief epilogue. Director Stafford brings back the unity enunciated in “Together Wherever We Go.” This arrives at a traditional comic ending. Those who sought to adopt the bitter ending of the memoir on which the play’s book is based have strayed from theatrical tradition in the name of futile, politically correct realism. Costumes by Michelle Eden Humphrey were quite nice. Applause to Artistic Director John Simpkins, Managing Director Justin Ball, and Casting Director Geoff Josselson.

For the last five years Sharon Playhouse has been on an upward professional ascent. How much further upward can they go? These tickets are not your average Manhattan price-tag. And parking is free. Bar service is polite, cheery, and quick. Oh, and prepare to be dazzled by dancing and singing.

This production runs through July 3. Tickets can be purchased online at www.sharonplayhouse.org or by phone at 860-364-SHOW, ext. 201.