- PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO'S LITTLE THEATRE
It’s a painful reality, but those who politely encouraged you when you used to suck won’t necessarily cheer you on when your proverbial limp turns into a sexy swagger, so to speak. This phenomenon, already a bit over-represented in show business, wields a particular influence over SLO Little Theatre’s Gypsy. A musical, Gypsy is based on memoirs of the forgettable 1920s vaudeville performer Rose Louise Hovick—better known as 1930s striptease sensation Gypsy Rose Lee.
Considering the real Gypsy’s profession, most of the play, directed by Adrian Balbontin, is clean enough. The show opens as a gaggle of over-groomed children rehearse their performances in Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show. A high-kicking, baton-twirling, impossibly blonde Jonbenét look-alike named June stands out (played by the talented young Aria Miller, who appears to have learned to dance before she could walk). The jovial yet exasperated Uncle Jocko soon kicks out a cluster of overbearing stage mothers, who nag and urge their offspring to perform from the sidelines. But dismissing Rose (a feisty Leona Evans) is no easy task. June’s mother, Rose, epitomizes the words “brassy broad” in manner and hair color alike. Her appearance is preceded by a shrill, “You’re behind, Louise!” from down the hall, a critique intended for June’s boyish younger sister and dance partner. Louise, played by Rebecca Canfield, dutifully tries to keep time, hair tucked up under a hat to appear even more boyish. June effortlessly flounces through a perky vaudeville number.
The scene sets the tone for much of the rest of the first act. An argument with Uncle Jocko over the girls’ star quality is repeated at home with June and Louise’s grandfather. Fed up, Rose takes the girls and leaves Seattle for good, ensuring them a childhood spent on the road.
Their traveling vaudeville act, “Baby June and her Newsboys” (said newsboys consisting of three boys and Louise), endures several incarnations along the years, each one campier and (hilariously) more desperate than before. Time keeps rolling. So do the newfangled “talkies,” much to the collective chagrin of vaudeville. But one thing never changes: the children’s ages. At least, according to Rose (“As long as we have this act, nobody’s over 10, except me,” she insists).
For most of the first act, it seems as though the play is about June (Meredith Green replaces Aria Miller to play the older June). Clearly her mother’s favorite, June remains the act’s “pretty one.” But nobody considered the long-term effects of too much adoration on a young psyche, and her time in the spotlight ends when she escapes to marry one of her newsboys. The other newsboys split too, leaving only Louise to comfort a predictably overdramatic Rose. In typical show-must-go-on fashion, Rose insists that her future in showbiz now rests on humble, long-suffering, mousy Louise.
Louise’s revamped act (called Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes; awful, awful, awful) gets booked into a burlesque club by mistake. This causes much hullabaloo and fussing among Rose, the recruited innocents touted as “Hollywood Blondes,” and the act’s manager/Rose’s love interest Herbie. But having gone too long without a paid gig, Rose eventually says they’ll take the job.
After an adolescence largely spent playing a little boy in her pretty older sister’s vaudeville act, it’s understandable that Gypsy’s Rose Louise would have some pent-up sexuality to let out. And so it is in a second-rate burlesque club that Rose Louise Hovick disappears and Gypsy Rose Lee is born.
Kerry DiMaggio, playing the older Louise, masters the transition from terrified and stiff to sultry and swinging. Breathily crooning a song from Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show, the lyrics seem to twist into something dirty (“and if you’re real good, I’ll make you feel good”). With time, her performances become avant-garde, even intellectual—narrating in both English and French, pausing dramatically, strutting her sweet time across the stage. The legs that were obscured for so long in boys’ trousers are suddenly carnival attractions, earning her highly paid spots in progressively swankier clubs. Gypsy has finally become a star, just as her mother promised over and over again.
But Rose, who literally pushed her daughter into burlesque in the first place, is suddenly full of sharp reprimand and moral bluster. Leona Evans is brilliant as the stage mother who cannot let go, making it clear that Rose is dealing with her own emotional issues which make the idea of abandonment unbearable. Evans balances a formidable intensity with acute attention to the little mannerisms and quirks that make Rose by turns comical and exhausting.
In another context, Gypsy’s story could have been smutty, even sad. But Gypsy is clearly doing what she loves—and being paid handsomely for it. Dolled up in the trimmings of vintage elegance, the story and its namesake are daring, likeable, and fun. Somehow protected from present-day judgment by the plush cushion of 80 years’ time, Gypsy is lovely and compelling.
Writer/drama enthusiast/late-night espresso purveyor Anna Weltner can be reached via Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.