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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

Tribute to Vaudeville

Theater Review

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   The Vaudeville circuit flourished on American stages for half a century. Between the 1880's and the 1930's, an endless parade of performers scraped together a living one stage at a time, wandering across the country in search of fortune. Stephen Sondheim's hugely successful 1959 musical Gypsy is a strange, endearing tribute to the era of Vaudeville. Director Dale Gutzman brings that tribute to life this month as his Off the Wall Theatre presents its production of the Sondheim classic through Oct. 11.

  Sharon Rise stars as Rose-a stage mother obsessed with seeing her two daughters (June and Louise) achieve fame and fortune as child stars. Rise displays a competent, tenacious energy in the part of Rose. Her singing is almost flawless, but there's something missing. While she succeeds in projecting an oppressive resilience that is totally oblivious to the desires of her daughters, Rise seems to be struggling to find a way to make the ugly side of the character likeable and the production suffers a little as a result. As presented by Gutzman, the stage act she organizes with her two daughters and a number of other children is dazzlingly cloying. It's easy to romanticize the charm of Vaudeville, but here Gutzman vividly delivers the kind of nauseating garishness it was capable of.

  The musical swiftly flashes ahead from June and Louise as child performers to June and Louise as the young women Rose so desperately wants to be thought of as child performers. Here Liz Mistele is brilliantly tragic as Rose's favorite-June. June chafes under the overwhelming weight of her mother's love and Mistele captures the tragedy exquisitely. Alison Mary Forbes plays Louise-the attention-starved tomboy destined to become famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. Forbes is endlessly enjoyable in the role, particularly when interacting with Mistele. Their duet near the end of Act One is sweet enough to melt away the abrasiveness that opens the show.

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