(Photos courtesy of The Shedd: Left to right, Kenady Conforth, Shirley Andress, Clarae Smith and Ward Fairbairn lead the cast of “Gypsy.”)
By Randi Bjornstad
She was the literary momma from hell, but the musical version of the love-hate relationship between Rose and her daughter Louise, who became the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, nonetheless has been packing the house for nearly 60 years.
The Shedd Institute for the Arts will open its production on June 16 in the Jaqua Concert Hall for six performances, ending on June 25.
Many people have witnessed — or maybe even been guilty of — the actions of quintessential stage mothers, but Rose sets the bar when it comes to defining the term, ostensibly because she wanted success for her talented daughters, but probably also because she wanted to bask in it because she hadn’t achieved it for herself.
The show is set in the 1920s, when the greater sophistication of movies and radio — and burlesque — combined to hasten the decline of vaudeville in the United States. The musical is loosely based, so they say, on the memoir of the striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, who along with her sister, the actress June Havoc, endured the not-so-tender ministrations of their forceful mom as they pursued their careers under her critical eye.
It’s said that Ethel Merman first came upon the idea of turning Lee’s story into a musical after reading her memoir, and the concept was rejected by a number of composers, including Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, before Jule Styne agreed to write the songs and Stephen Sondheim signed up for lyrics. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, and David Merrick was the producer.
The result is legendary to the point that many theater critics, including the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, have dubbed “Gypsy” the greatest musical of all time.
At The Shedd, the show is directed by Peg Major, with music director Robert Ashens, choreographer Caitlin Christopher and costumer Jamie Parker. Sets are created by Sean Johnson and Connie Huston.
Veteran Shedd performers — Shirley Andress, Clarae Smith, Ward Fairbairn and Kenady Conforth— lead a cast that also includes Matthew Leach, David Kessler, Janet Whitlow, Erin Hennessy, Caitlin Christopher, Conner Criswell, Evan McCarty, Bradyn Debysingh, Samuel Rose, Cyra Conforth, Sophia James, Johanna Gilbert, Roxanne Fox, Hannah Murphy, Ken Major, Campbell Conforth and Noa Ablow Measelle.
Performers in the Youth Ensemble are Xela Keith-Chirch, Ruby Kidder, Daisy DeSalvo, Riley Given and Tea Kidder.
For those who like familiar songs when they go to a musical, “Gypsy” has a bunch, starting with “Let Me Entertain You” and moving on to musical theater classics such as “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” “Together, Wherever We Go” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
A potential spoiler alert: The ending of “Gypsy” varies from production to production, sometimes implying a reconciliation between Gypsy Rose and her mother, sometimes a permanent rift, sometimes a more open-ended hint that the younger woman merely takes on the role of caretaker for the older.
Regardless of how The Shedd plays the ending, “Gypsy” offers a cautionary tale for stage mothers everywhere. They know who they are.
When: 7:30 p.m. on June 16-17 and 23-24; 3 p.m. on June 18 and 25; pre-concert meals available by reservation
Where: Jaqua Concert Hall, Broadway and High streets in downtown Eugene (parking behind)
Tickets: $22 to $38, available at the box office at 868 High St., 541-434-7000, or online at theshedd.org/