By Karen Isaacs
Let’s all salute Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba who is showing her range as Mama Rose in Gypsy at Sharon Playhouse through July 3.
It is an old-fashioned summer theater in the far northwest corner of Connecticut near both the Massachusetts and New York borders. It’s a pleasant summertime drive, about 90 minutes from the New Haven area.
The Playhouse follows the older format for summer theater: bring in a veteran performer who may or may not have box office draw, surround him or her with a couple of other professionals, and then fill out the cast with aspiring performers who may also be apprentices and help with scenery, box office, concessions, etc.
Broadway aficionados know Karen Ziemba for her consistently fine work. She has won a Tony and multiple other awards for her performances in Contact, Curtains, Never Gonna Dance, And the World Goes ‘Round, Steel Pier and others.
Now she is taking on one of the great female roles in musical theater: Mama Rose. While her performance is very good, I have no doubt that as the run progresses (it runs through July 3), her performance will deepen and become even better. After all, there was only two weeks of rehearsal.
She gives us a Rose who doesn’t belt as much as Merman though her vocal chops are excellent, but she does add more femininity and flirtatiousness than Merman did. She makes obvious that Rose is making up for what is lacking in her own life with her determination to make her children stars, even if they don’t want to be them. She needs them to succeed or rather she needs to succeed in making them stars. The line between her and her children is very blurred.
“Rose’s Turn” is the big eleven o’clock number where Rose finally recognizes some truths about herself. It has to be a challenge to perform that emotionally and vocally difficult number after close to three hours of performing. Ziemba does well by it, but again, I suspect as she settles in to the role, it will become truly a tour de force.
The two main supporting roles: Herbie and Louise (Gypsy) are played by Rufus Collins and Kyra Kennedy. Both are solid professionals but neither bring anything special to the roles. Collins’ Herbie just seems too glum; even at the curtain call, he did not smile. Kennedy is very good in the scenes as the teenage tomboyish Louise; but her strip routine as she moves from scared novice to star lacks pizzazz and star power. You never believe her.
The other members of the cast vary from quite good to adequate. Julia Hemp is very good as June and I enjoyed Emily Soell in the two roles of Miss Cratchitt and Electra. In the latter, she really played well with the audience.
The sets – there are many of them – costumes (ditto) and lighting were all good.
One complaint I had – and I overheard audience members at intermission expressing the same one – was the sound system. I do not know exactly what the problems were. One, it was often way too loud; this is a relatively small theater and it was loud enough to amplify a 500+ seat theater. Also, higher pitched voices sounded screetchy. This was particularly a problem for Julia Hemp as June. I saw audience members putting hands over their ears.
The show was directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford. The pace needed to be picked up; as I was watching this show that most view as one of the top ten musicals, I realized that some songs could easily be cut, and that the scenes seem to have a similar format: set up with some short dialogue followed by a song. I’ve seen numerous productions and never found myself with such thoughts.
Gypsy is worth seeing for Karen Ziemba’s performance. I look forward to seeing her do the role again as I am certain it will continue to develop.
Gypsy is at Sharon Playhouse, Sharon, CT. through July 3. For tickets or information, call 860-364-7469 or visit sharonplayhouse.org.