For their second production of the 2017-18 season, the John W. Engeman Theatre of Northport revived the 1959 musical “Gypsy,” which, despite not winning one of the eight Tonys it was nominated for, was critically acclaimed and has been revived numerous times since its inception. The show is one of the most beloved American musicals and has attracted lauded actresses like Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone. While the Engeman production does not boast the same star power, it still manages to captivate the audience.
The story is based on the memories of the popular 1940s stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose mother, Rose, was the stereotypical “stage mother.” In an attempt to attain fame, Rose pushes her children, June and Louise, into the entertainment business so that they can be child stars. Like other stage mothers, Rose’s seemingly infinite optimism and determination wind up driving away everyone in her life, from her lover Herbie to both June and Louise. Despite her antagonistic qualities, Rose is still a sympathetic character, for who hasn’t had a dream that they were willing to sacrifice everything for?
While the musical centers around her daughters’ careers, it is Rose’s show, and Michele Ragusa gives an excellent performance as the lead character. She radiates with determination and optimism and dominates the stage as a proper Rose should. At times the audience forgets the actress exists. Her performance reaches a climax in the song “Rose’s Turn” — while singing about all of her sacrifices, she turns the tune into a whirlwind of emotion. However, there are some flaws in her performance. Whenever Rose’s optimism fades, such as when Herbie leaves her for good or when she is shunned by Louise, Ragusa is not sufficiently emotional. In general, Ragusa is better at emoting determination and anger than sorrow.
Ragusa has strong support from the rest of the cast. Austen Danielle Bohmer is able to successfully capture Louise’s withdrawn and shy nature, but she also manages to transform beautifully into the reserved stripper she is to become. John Scherer gives a solid performance as Herbie, portraying his growing frustration with Rose even though he continues to support her. Charity van Tassel’s June is appropriately childlike in the vaudeville acts she and her sister perform.
The combination of music, written by Jule Styne, and lyrics, written by Stephen Sondheim, makes for a beautiful score. Much of it reflects Rose’s delusional optimism and is upbeat and perky. However, the show occasionally goes for a melancholy tone, such as with the mournful song “Little Lamb,” which Louise sings on her birthday upon realizing that she doesn’t know her true age (her mother lied about the girls’ ages for so long to keep the “child” act going). Several numbers are deliciously rousing, including the show-stopping numbers “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn.” Even the quirky, novelty songs like “Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone” are memorable.
The sets are another high point. Although not every scene took place in a theatre, the background always displayed the backstage of a theatre. This design choice emphasizes how Rose’s children’s lives have become dictated by the theatre as the backstage is present in every scene. It is a nice thematic touch that heightens the quality of the production.
Even fifty-eight years after blooming on Broadway, Engeman’s “Gypsy” is still turning up fresh roses. Gypsy will be playing at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theatre through Oct. 29.
Correction: This article has been updated to amend one incorrect reference to Gypsy Rose Lee as the stereotypical “stage mother.” Her mother, Rose, was the intended subject of that descriptor.