OCTOBER 5, 2017 – If the Tevye of “Fiddler on the Roof” is a kind of atypical everyman, Mama Rose of “Gypsy” is likewise an unlikely everywoman. Curiously, both characters repeatedly make reference to the “Good Book.” Where the former’s fictional religious Jewish milkman tries to determine his daughters’ respective futures according to tradition, the latter’s Seattle show business mother is determined to direct her daughters’ lives with the authority of an impresario.
While the less domineering Tevye is arguably more likeable than pushy Mama Rose, both central characters are roles that premier actors have eagerly tackled over the years. Who can forget Ethel Merman belting out “Everything’s Coming up Roses” in the 1959 Broadway debut? Since then, talents as big as Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Patti Lupone have won acclaim as Broadway Mama Roses, and now Hub actress Leigh Barrett is giving a powerhouse performance worthy of comparison at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
Director-choreographer Rachel Bertone’s inspiration starts during the overture. A couple dressed in tuxedo and evening gown take an elegant turn during strains of “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.” Later, young performers join Barrett behind a cast member with a car steering wheel as Mama Rose builds her ensemble traveling the vaudeville circuit on the way to New York.
Designer Franklin Meissner, Jr. inserts strobe lighting for a smart time lapse effect during which the younger Rose’s ensemble turns into the more seasoned adolescent version.
Bertone’s personal touches clearly enhance the show’s historic collaboration. Loosely based on the 1957 memoir of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee – Rose’s daughter Louise, played by Kirsten Salpini in the Boston production – Arthur Laurents’ book vividly depicts the vaudeville circuit and the artistic and financial challenges facing Rose as she drives the careers of Louise and her sister, June (Gypsy Rose Lee’s actual dancer-actress sister, June Havoc, played by Kira Troilo).
Stephen Sondheim – the renowned Jewish composer and lyricist who had burst onto the Broadway scene two years earlier with “West Side Story” – delivered plot-complementing lyrics in “Gypsy” that sharply mesh with Jule Styne’s warm and hopeful melodies.
The Lyric Stage revival has a strong, collaborative feel. Bertone paces her choreography as sharply for the “Baby June and Her Newsboys” number as for “Dainty June and Her Farmboys.”
Salpini is rivetingly vulnerable on the touching solo “Little Lamb,” and Troilo and Salpini are fully convincing as sisters, especially on the insightful duet “If Momma Was Married.” Barrett and Steven Barkhimer as Rose’s group agent and candy salesman boyfriend Herbie do well with the ups and down of their relationship. Barrett, Barkhimer, and Salpini have the feel of a real family unit on a very winning rendition of “Together, Wherever We Go.”
Most of all, there is Barrett’s brilliant performance as Rose. She captures all of Mama’s complexity: her single-minded determination to develop June’s talent, her later contrasting focus on Louise, her conflicted feelings about Herbie, and her hindsight about what might have been.
The production runs through October 8 at 140 Clarendon St. For tickets, call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.