Gypsy celebrates women who don't need to be good to be great

No shrinking violet: Cat Brindisi as Gypsy Rose Lee.

No shrinking violet: Cat Brindisi as Gypsy Rose Lee.

"Used to always stay at home, be a good girl," sings Drake in "Hotline Bling," reminiscing about a time when the woman to whom he's singing focused her attention where he thinks it belongs: on him. The paternalistic line echoes a moment in Gypsy, when a frustrated lover abandons the career-focused Mama Rose with a parting admonition: "Be a good girl."

The role of Mama Rose, the quintessential stage mother, has been the vehicle for indelible performances by Broadway legends, including Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, and Tyne Daly. In this new production, presented by Theater Latté Da and the Hennepin Theatre Trust at the Pantages Theatre, Mama Rose is played with flinty resolve by local legend Michelle Barber.

Mama Rose's daughter — the girl who grows up to become Gypsy Rose Lee, the only performer from the golden age of burlesque who's still a household name — is played by Barber's real-life daughter Cat Brindisi. (Brindisi's father, Barber's husband, is longtime Chanhassen Dinner Theatres artistic director Michael Brindisi.) If the mother-daughter duo have any simmering resentments, they've checked them at the stage door. Director Peter Rothstein finds the warmth in the well-known musical, and doesn't plumb too deeply into its vaunted darkness.

Working from Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs, playwright Arthur Laurents created a family saga — with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim — that starts on the fading vaudeville circuit with little Louise (Carley Clover) playing second fiddle to her creepily infantilized sister June (Victoria Wyffels). When June (played as an adult by Shinah Brashears) elopes with her fellow performer Tulsa (a priceless Tyler Michaels), Louise becomes Mama Rose's new star, reborn as Gypsy Rose.

That's a lot of territory to cover, both chronologically and geographically, and set designer Michael Hoover makes wonderfully effective use of a series of stages-within-a-stage that fly in and out to represent Gypsy's journeys, with show titles and locations projected atop a proscenium to help us keep our bearings. Gypsy's rapid ascent to notoriety, during the song "Let Me Entertain You," is a bravura feat of stagecraft, with the setting (and Brindisi, in various glamorous costumes by Alice Fredrickson) seamlessly transformed in each successive verse.

Barber makes Mama Rose a paragon of on-with-the-show perseverance; while lines that could be gut-wrenching tend to fly by, Mama Rose comes across as a sympathetic striver who earns believable love and devotion from her daughter and from patient paramour Herbie (Tod Petersen). Brindisi's Louise is grounded and empathetic, and we root for her when she comes into her own, even if her burlesque persona doesn't exactly crackle with erotic heat.

Gypsy contains a disproportionate chunk of the Great American Songbook, and the music comes alive under music director Denise Prosek, who leads a crack six-piece band. Rothstein and his team do ample justice to this classic material, with its poignant feminist themes that remain as relevant as ever. Arm in arm, Gypsy and Mama Rose don't need a man to tell them what kind of girls to be.


Pantages Theatre
710 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Through March 13; 1-800-859-SHOW