There are mothers and there are Mothers, and then there's Momma Rose. She is the world's most famous stage mother, the driving force behind her children and the reason the great American musical Gypsy exists.
In the swell production of Gypsy starring Tovah Feldshuh that opened Thursday night at Bristol Riverside Theatre in celebration of the stage company's 25th anniversary, Momma Rose is not just intent, or aggressive, or difficult, or even defiant. When the plot's pushes come to shoves, Feldshuh plays her as downright maniacal.
This extends to the generally hopeful American standard that ends the first act: "Everything's Coming Up Roses." In Feldshuh's rendering, everything's coming up roses or else; her eyes shoot bullets as she delivers the song. Her body language could throw a steamroller into reverse.
This character crescendo - which Feldshuh masterfully employs when things are really tough for Rose, her girls, and her agent - makes the portrayal her own, and brings out a side of Rose that always simmers in the background. I've seen several Roses you could pity, but not Feldshuh's; she lives the life she never had through her girls so transparently that although I rooted for her, it seemed to me she deserved what she got in the end, when her less-favored daughter becomes a worldwide striptease star.
It's an interpretation that lets us see the show in a new way, and also makes allowances for Feldshuh's middle vocal register, not as strong as her lower range. Her higher range has a lovely treble, but is altogether different, also, and sometimes when she sings, it's like hearing three different voices. But Feldshuh, a star who had the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway's history (Golda's Balcony) and works regularly in film and TV, comes across here as an actor first - her rendition of the show's end-song, "Rose's Turn," in which Momma becomes a star in her own mind, is relentlessly tense, passionate, and pathetic.
Bristol's artistic director, Keith Baker, stages the show to get the best, especially, out of the songs by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim - "Some People," "Small World," and "Together, Wherever We Go" are among the hits, all backed by an outstanding orchestra led by Eric Barnes. Arthur Laurents wrote the book for the show, which premiered in 1959 and is modeled tangentially on the memoir of high-class stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
The agent who falls in love with Rose is played with charm by Robert Newman, whose steady job for 28 years has been the role of Joshua Lewis on TV's Guiding Light. Amanda Rose is complete in her transition from no-talent kid to the renowned Gypsy, and a show-stealer is the lanky, smooth-dancing Joe Grandy as Tulsa, who falls in love with Rose's favored daughter, June (Brittney Lee Hamilton). Grandy executes Kathryn Kendall's flashy choreography in the number "All I Need Is the Girl" as if he were inventing it on the spot.
Kendall herself, Demetria Joyce Bailey, and the excellent Bethe B. Austin play the strippers who teach Gypsy a thing or two. Benjamin Lloyd and others play a number of characters, the little kids in the show are sweet, and life in this Gypsy revolves readily on Nels Anderson's turntable set.