Though not everything comes up roses in Saddleback Civic Light Opera's mounting of this classic tuner, powerful lead performances do justice to librettist Arthur Laurents' compelling backstage story, based on the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose. The director's challenge in staging this legendary 1959 musical drama is to parlay its zesty vaudevillian milieu into an atmospheric treat while illuminating the compelling psychological underpinnings of its seriocomic mother/ daughter relationship. Direct-or/choreographer Ray Limon and company do a fine job of serving the absorbing narrative but are less successful at capturing the expected showbiz zing and the riches of the magnificent music (Jule Styne) and lyrics (Stephen Sondheim).
The production's strongest suit is Beth Hansen's shattering portrayal of notorious stage mother Rose. In the early scenes, there's too much musical comedy diva and not enough obsessive piranha in Hansen's portrayal. But she improves as the show progresses, poignantly conveying the conflicted emotions of a woman trying to vicariously re-create her own failed dreams by pushing her daughter to success. Her powerhouse delivery revitalizes that famous nervous breakdown number "Rose's Turn." Susannah Hall likewise brings fresh nuances to the part of shrinking-violet Louise, who miraculously morphs into self-assured burlesque headliner Gypsy. Tom Shelton as Rose's kindly suitor Herbie, who eventually realizes he can't be in love with a steamroller, is also superb. In the choice roles of the three strippers with "gimmicks," Amanda Abel, Michelle Weingarden, and Molly Mahoney energize this tried-and-true comic vignette. Among the principals, only James Below disappoints as the ambitious hoofer Tulsa. He exhibits little charisma and unimpressive footwork in the usually showstopping "All I Need Is the Girl."
The first act tends toward the sluggish, partly due to Limon's lackluster staging of the vaudeville bits, and is further hampered by a drab and unimaginative set design (presumably rented; credited to scenic coordinator Wally Huntoon). Music director/conductor John Massey Jr. does serviceable work, though the music doesn't always snap, crackle, and pop as it should--particularly in that widely revered overture. Despite the production's flaws, fans of this evergreen show will want to savor the scintillating lead performances.