It must have been an experience sitting in The Broadway Theater on May 21, 1959, for the opening night of Gypsy. Onstage, two little girls are singing a dreadful kiddie song when suddenly in the back of the theater a late-comer barrels in from the lobby yelling at them. It's not until she's halfway down the aisle you realize it's Ethel Merman playing Mama Rose in this musical version of the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee — a show considered by many to be the greatest of American musicals.
For its latest production, Pittsburgh CLO presents Kim Zimmer starring as Mama Rose, and Robert Newman as her long-suffering Herbie. (Guiding Light fans will undoubtedly remember them as Reva and Josh.)
Any chance to see Gypsy is welcome, and again I was reminded how incredibly well built Arthur Laurent's script is, with not a word or scene out of place. He juggles a number of dramatic threads but resolves them to the same point: In a parent/child relationship, love can sometimes be the most painful element.
You hardly need me to sing the praises of the brilliant score by Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim; in this CLO production, what stands out particularly is the extraordinary work of musical director Tom Helm and the orchestra's masterful handling of the music. It's the best performance (with a special shout-out to the brass section) of this score I've ever heard.
The role of Mama Rose has been called the "King Lear" of musicals, and Zimmer uses a strong, clear voice to give her numbers tremendous appeal. Her approach to the character is surprisingly tentative, but that could just have been opening-night nerves. Newman provides rock-solid support (in a role that can often be washed out), and he and Zimmer play with terrific chemistry.
Susan Cella gets the chance for big laughs in the dual roles of Miss Cratchitt and Tessie, and knocks both out of the park. Zach Trimmer's performance of "All I Need Now Is the Girl" is beautifully performed, with Amanda Rose's painful yearning in the same number deeply moving.