The Connecticut Repertory Theater’s production of Gypsy at UConn in Storrs through July 20 stars Leslie Uggams as Mama Rose. I wish I could say that her performance is one to remember; unfortunately despite some flashes of brilliance and good singing, both her performance and the overall show seems mostly lifeless.
Gypsy is an iconic show and the role of Mama Rose has been envied by every Broadway diva since Ethel Merman originated it. (A side note — Merman lost the Tony that year to Mary Martin in A Sound of Music). Just think about the list of actresses who have succeeded as Rose: Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daley, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lupone, and I know I have missed some along the way.
On paper, the idea of Uggams in the role seemed promising. She is a veteran performer, with a Tony award (for Hallelujah Baby!) and replaced Lupone in the Lincoln Center production of Anything Goes. She is a belter and an actress (another Tony nomination for August Wilson’s King Hedley II). So it seemed as though she could handle both the acting and singing elements of the role..
The downside was that Uggams might be the oldest Mama Rose (71). But few actresses have played the role when they were in the 30s which is probably more appropriate. If you think about it, Rose has two young daughters when the story begins so she is likely in her 20s and the show ends with the girls in their 20s, so at the finale show Rose is probably about 50 or even younger. Both Peters and Lupone were late 50s or early 60s when they successfully played the role.
SO what happened? We could blame it on director Vincent J. Cardinal and his choices or we could blame it on Uggams’ vision of the role. It seemed wrong right the start, as Rose enters and interupts the audition for Uncle Jocko’s talent show. She did not project the stage mother to end all stage mothers — in fact her posture was more like a grandmother — bent over.
Yet there were flashes of brilliance –Uggams shined in an occasional number letting us see her radiant smile. Everything came to life. But those moments were much too brief. The rest of the time, the drive, the ambition and the hurt were only on the surface.
The cast tried their hardest and many succeeded. The three strippers: Tessie Tura (MacKenzie Leigh Friedmann), Mazeppa (Ariana Shore), and Electra (Cassandra Dupler) score with “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” The two Junes — Annie Tolis as Baby June and Alanna Saunders as June show us the mixed feelings about show business that June has. Luke Hamilton really nails the role of Tulsa and his big number, “All I Need Is the Girl” is a standout with terrific choreography by Cassie Abate.
Scott Ripley has the difficult role of Herbie. It’s difficult because he has no solos, is mostly in the background and seems like a doormat most of the time, a glorified “go-fer.” Ripley does his best but is affected by the lack of energy that Uggams provides. Yet he too has one or two terrific moments, especially his exit.
As Louise, Amandina Altomare starts strong. She lets you see the yearning girl who has always been pushed into the background and just wants Mama’s approval. Her reactions in “All I Need Is the Girl” makes you want to cry. But when she takes the spotlight as the star, Gypsy Rose Lee, something is lacking. She doesn’t project star.
Of course, it all hinges on the big eleven o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn.” Uggams nails it vocally but she seems stiff, awkward and uncomfortable. This isn’t a Rose who is dreaming of how she could have been a star.
The costumes by Lisa Leon capture the period though the blanket coats get lost because of the muted brown and tan plaid; Greg Purnell pulls off some fine lighting and the set by Tim Brown is functional. I do wish that the director had been more creative with the set changes and the brief blackouts.
Yet the show is so iconic, that despite the flaws this is a good entertainment value. It runs through July 20, 2014.
For tickets, call 860-486-2113 or visit http://www.crt.uconn.edu. The Connecticut Repertory Theater performs in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs.