Everything’s Coming Up Roses
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Gypsy has just opened in Niagara-on-the-Lake on the Shaw Festival Stage. Kate Hennig owns that stage and rightly so – she is Rose, the ultimate stage mother. She makes the role her own. Rose is a narcissist, wanting all the attention for herself, and expecting her daughters to share her ambition. Yet Hennig also gives us a brief glimpse of Rose’s softer side, letting us know she’s not a monster.
Rose is the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Rose pushed her daughter into Burlesque after years of fruitlessly trying to turn her into a Vaudeville star, and the musical is an examination of Rose’s determination.
The story starts with Rose, stage mom extraordinaire, pushing her two young daughters to perform at talent shows. She steals from her father to take her kids on the road to make it in Vaudeville. Along the way she picks up a supporting cast of boys – naming them for the place she found them, such as Yonkers and Tulsa – all in support of Baby June, her beautiful daughter with golden curls. The other daughter, Louise, lacking stage presence, is also relegated to the role of a supporting boy. As the kids grow up, Rose keeps presenting them as cute little children on stage. Finally, June can no longer put up with her mother and elopes with fellow cast member, Tulsa. Rose turns all her attention on Louise, and with Vaudeville dying, she convinces Louise to go on the Burlesque stage as the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, so that finally, she can be a star.
This wonderful 1959 musical is based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoire and covers her rise to stardom as a stripper. This was one of the earliest productions by the late great Stephen Sondheim. As lyricist, he demonstrated an unbelievable song writing talent that furthered his impressive career.
Shaw’s Kate Hennig makes the most of Rose’s admission that she wanted to be a star, and instead she pushed her kids, with the cutting declaration “I made you! And you wanna know why? You wanna know what I did it for?”…“’Cause I was born too soon and I started too late.”
Hennig also demonstrates Rose’s jealousy of her daughter’s success, with the emotional outburst, “With what I got in me, I could have been better than any of you! What I got in me, what I’ve been holding down inside of me, if I ever let it out, there wouldn’t be signs big enough! There wouldn’t be lights bright enough!” Then Hennig’s presentation of “Rose’s Turn” is her tragic admission that she pushed her daughters too hard.
A solid supporting cast backs Hennig. Jason Cadieux is excellent as the browbeaten Herbie, her long-suffering boyfriend. When Herbie finally stands up to Rose, you want to cheer for Cadieux. Julie Lumsden is perfect as the young Louise, always being ignored and forgotten by her mother, who has stardom planned for June. Lumsden just needs to come on a little stronger when she becomes the pretentious Gypsy Rose Lee, speaking French and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Madelyn Kriese as June is perfect as the puppet doing what Mama tells her, until she just can’t stand being Baby June anymore.
It’s a good thing that Hennig is a powerful Rose; otherwise, the three strippers might steal the show. Tessie Tura (Elodie Gillett), Mazeppa (Jenni Burke) and Electra (Krystal Chance) with their version of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” have the audience laughing. Gillet is the ballet dancing stripper creating comedy by trying to get her strategically placed tassel to bounce, while Chance amazes the audience with all the coloured lights in her costume. But it’s Burke who brings the house down when she shows how to bump it with a trumpet! They are excellent comic relief in what could be a very dark turn in the plot.
A special shout-out goes to choreographer Genny Sermonia. I assume it must be a challenge to take dancers and ask them to flub their moves for the sake of comedy. But it is successfully done with the Toreadorables, Rose’s mismatched band of girls who are supposed to back up Louise and make her the star. Sermonia also choregraphed the moves of the three strippers for maximum laughs.
The orchestra sounds wonderful in this production. It’s always a thrill to hear those first few notes to Gypsy’s overture.
I’ve seen many productions of Gypsy, including the wonderful Bernadette Peters on Broadway and Canadian star Louise Pitre in Chicago. Hennig’s Rose is right there with them. I also saw Shaw’s 2005 Gypsy with Nora McLellan, who was fabulous. (She is now the funniest and nastiest nun/teacher on CBC TV’s Son of a Critch. Hennig has also had a turn on TV; she played an overbearing mother in the series Bomb Girls.) Hennig also appeared in the 2005 production in several performances as McLellan’s alternate. As Rose says, “Someone tell me, when is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself?” This is show is Hennig’s turn, and she is Rose.
Gypsy continues in repertory at The Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 7. For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-SHAW(7429).
Photo: Jason Cadieux as Herbie, Kate Hennig as Rose, and Julie Lumsden as Louise in Gypsy singing “Together, Wherever We Go”. Photo by David Cooper.
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jay Turvey
Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli
Choreography by Genny Sermonia
Performed by Kate Hennig, Julie Lumsden, Jason Cadieux, Elodie Gillett, Jenni Burke, Krystle Chance, Madelyn Kriese, Drew Plummer et al.
Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 10 to October 7, 2023
Reviewed by Mary Alderson