LET'S FACE it: Whenever the subject is "Gypsy," the discussion begins and ends with the actress tackling the role of Rose, the axis around which the revered Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical revolves.
Put another way, the supporting cast and technical crew can be the best ever assembled for a musical, but if Rose - the stage mother from hell created by Ethel Merman, in 1959, and rendered equally indelible by Rosalind Russell in the 1962 film version - doesn't measure up, the production can't possibly succeed.
Media Theatre's version, which runs through Nov. 1, features Krissy Fraelich as the star of this ultimate backstage drama based on the early careers of Hollywood actress June Havoc (nee Hovick) and her older sister, Louise, who grew up to become iconic stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Despite the show's somewhat perplexing title (the play is based on Gypsy Rose Lee's story), the musical is mostly about their mother, who shepherded her young daughters through an early 20th century show-business landscape that was anything but welcoming and nurturing - and somehow wound up with two wildly successful kids almost in spite of herself.
There is no question that Fraelich has the technical chops for the part coveted by most musical-theater actresses of a certain age. Her vocals are dramatic and expressive, and she is totally believable as a woman whose bluster and aggressiveness mask almost-psychopathic frustration and a burning desire that don't reveal themselves until the program's final minutes.
But - and this is a biggie - Fraelich doesn't quite have that force-of-nature, suck-the-oxygen-out-of-the-room presence that the role really demands. Her portrayal is just a tad soft around the edges; there's little hint of the "monster" that some made Rose out to be. Perhaps it's unfair to compare anyone to either Merman or Russell, two of 20th-century show biz's grandest of grande dames, but that's just how monumental the two iconic performers were in the role. And without that edge and (for lack of a better word) oomph, this "Gypsy" falls a bit shy of the mark.
But everything is relative, and when all is said and done, "Gypsy" is certainly worth the schlep to Media.
Its many charms begin, of course, with the score that, by any measure, is one of the best ever conceived for the stage. Filled with classics like "Some People," "All I Need Is the Girl," "Together Wherever We Go," "Rose's Turn" (a/k/a "Everything's Coming Up Roses") and "Let Me Entertain You," it is a template for the stage: The songs (and we're talking real songs) superbly propel the story, but stand alone as great works of pop construction, bursting with wonderful (and wonderfully witty) lyrics, memorable hooks and toe-tapping arrangements.
The book, by Arthur Laurents (a Sondheim collaborator on "West Side Story"), probably isn't quite as edgy or sophisticated as it likely seemed during the final days of the Eisenhower administration, but it still boasts the kind of dramatic heft and erudition of which most modern authors can only dream (while there are plenty of humorous moments, this is decidedly not a "musical comedy").
Fraelich's supporting cast is solid. Leading the pack is Kelly Briggs, who is impressively empathetic and grounded as Herbie, the decent, good-hearted agent who sticks by Rose much longer than he should. Anna Giordano as the young-adult Gypsy has the right blend of naivete and sex appeal. And at a recent performance Ava Briglia (who shares the role with Portia Murphy) stole scenes and hearts as the cartwheeling Baby June, in whom Rose has far too much invested.
On the other side of the footlights, director Jesse Cline's supervision is sure-handed and facile (he's the company's artistic director), especially when staging Dann Dunn's animated choreography.
The biggest issue with this production is scenic director Matthew Miller's reliance on rear-projection still photography and video. From a purely technical standpoint, it works fine in terms of establishment of place. And there's no doubt it is a logistically (and economically) efficient way of doing business. But we can't help but feel a little of the magic of live theater is removed by such use of technology.
Media Theatre, 104 E. State St., show times vary, $42 (discounts available), 510-891-0100, mediatheatre.org.
On Nov. 19, I'll join the Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns at the Media Theatre for a discussion after the 2 p.m. performance of "Billy Elliot the Musical," which runs Nov. 18 through Jan. 3. We'll be chatting up artistic director Cline, Briggs and director/choreographer Geoffrey Goldberg. Details at fallartsevents.splashthat.com.
There's no question that, locally speaking, 2015's most unique staging is that of Arden Theatre Company's production of "Metamorphosis," which runs through Nov. 1 at the group's Old City home.
The play, Chicago-based playwright Mary Zimmerman's take on the classic myths by ancient Roman poet Ovid, is set in and around an 18-foot-by-24-foot, 2,600-gallon tank of water. Though only two feet deep, lighting schemes create the illusion that it is much deeper. And be forewarned: There is a possibility that some ticketholders may get splashed a bit during the show.
Arden Theatre (F. Otto Haas Stage), 20 N. 2nd St., show times vary, $36-$50 (discounts available), 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
Kevin Chamberlin, whose prodigious Broadway credits include starring as Uncle Fester (with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth) in "The Addams Family" and creating the role of Horton the Elephant in "Seussical" (he was also Bertram the Butler on all four seasons of the Disney Channel sitcom, "Jesse"), will be in South Jersey Oct. 17 to receive Moorestown Theatre Company's inaugural Theatre Legend Award.
So, why is the hulking (260 pound), chrome-domed actor the recipient? We're pretty sure it's because his acting career was more or less launched by the venerable community-theater company (he was born in Baltimore, but grew up in the historic Burlington County burg).
The honor will be bestowed on Chamberlin during MTC's seventh annual "Extrava-gala" fundraiser. The bash includes a cocktail reception, dinner, dancing, cabaret performances (including songs by Chamberlin) and an auction. It's open to the public.
Riverton Country Club, 1416 Highland Ave., 6 p.m., $125 and $175 (portions of which are tax-deductible), 856-778-8357, moorestowntheatrecompany.org.
On Twitter: @chuckdarrow