It's a venerable rule of entertainment: When talent flags, try titillation. Few embraced this notion with more élan than Gyspy Rose Lee, the great striptease artist of the burlesque era whose memoirs inspired the canonical 1959 musical by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim, staged here by Theater Latté Da.
The story's fulcrum is Mama Rose (Jody Briskey), a horrid stage mother who compels daughters Louise (Simone Perrin) and June (Katie Allen) to inhale deeply the last wisps of vaudeville. In the early going, Louise and June are children (played by Sarah Cartwright and Julia Wiersum). Leaving Seattle for broader theatrical pastures, Mama Rose proceeds to whip up a song-and-dance routine out of June's talents.
These numbers are excellent, so over-the-top and eager to please that they leave the viewer positively giddy. Then, in mid-number, the children disappear and give way to their grown-up selves—still flogging the same old material and trying to pass themselves off as much younger than they really are. This sort of thing is common in show business—did you know that Lindsay Lohan is actually 37?—but here it leaves a particularly unsavory taste.
Perrin makes the most of this warped time. She has a sweet, high, and occasionally raw voice, and under the stage lights she takes on the image of goofy tomboy in one moment and gorgeous ingenue the next. She renders "Little Lamb" with an affecting ache (while children in animal costumes file through and a lonesome cello moans). And she duets with Allen on "If Momma Was Married" with an easy rhythm that paints the longing and suffering Mama Rose has inflicted on her offspring.
And what of Mama Rose? Well, Briskey plays her with a sort of anti-charm. While her depiction of Rose's doggedness is wholly authentic, she tosses in a self-possession that crosses the border into transparent desperation. This woman is driving these girls, in the end, not because of the glamour, or the money (they never seem to have any); she's not even trying to live through them vicariously. She's doing it because she has to. Success on the stage is the fucking Matterhorn for her, and she's going to climb it. Because it's there.
In the second act June sensibly flees, and Mama Rose tries to reinvent the show with the (seemingly) talent-free Louise. Push eventually comes to shove, and for money's sake the innocent Louise finds herself on the burlesque stage. And she likes it. And she's good at it. Bully for her. Fame and fortune, and reinvention as Gypsy Rose Lee follow. Perrin negotiates it all with an endearing look of amusement—an ugly duckling more than willing to swim in more inviting waters.
Mama Rose faces her ultimate crisis when she tries to figure out what her family's quest was all about. Briskey's taut and spiky performance pays off in a final grandiose turn. It's an understated show that Latté Da's Peter Rothstein has created, and many numbers pass by with little more than piano accompaniment. That makes "Rose's Turn" ("EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES!!!")—with its ragged instrumentation and powerhouse vocal delivery—feel all the more potent. I might be reading too much into things, but in Rose, I felt I had come across a full-fledged raging existential antihero—and in the least likely of places.
Had I seen the doggie drama Sylvia a year ago, my cornball alarm may have gone haywire. This two-time Jungle hit, upsized to the Pantages on Hennepin Avenue, features Bob Davis and Sally Wingert as a middle-aged couple in a state of flux, and Kirsten Frantzich as the pooch that nearly tears them asunder.
But I write this with a new, 65-pound canine knucklehead sleeping away at my feet. A.R. Gurney's comedy might well be light enough to drift away with the next stiff breeze, but it captures sweetly the truth about dogs—that they bring out our corny best, and that they see us the way we wish we really were.