Saturday, January 27, 2001

”Gypsy” has such an airtight book by Arthur Laurents and such a zingy score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim that to bollix up the musical is almost impossible.

Even Tyne Daly, who certainly had the brass but possessed a voice that was unpredictable, could not completely compromise “Gypsy.” So one feels doubly blessed to see a good staging of the musical, such as the one Signature Theatre in Arlington is doing under the helm of Baayork Lee (who created the role of Connie Wong in “A Chorus Line”).

The production has some inexplicable choices and some performances that run out of gas before they even get started, but overall, this is a “Gypsy” that puts pep in your step.

Donna Migliaccio brings the deeply affecting vulnerability she showed in last year’s “Sweeney Todd” to the role of Mama Rose. She has some mighty big lungs to fill — the part has been played by Ethel Merman and Bette Midler — but the audience knows from the get-go that Miss Migliaccio has the roof-rattling pipes necessary to play the show-biz battleship.

Although her voice is indeed divine, especially in the songs “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” what Miss Migliaccio brings to the world is a wonderful wistfulness and yearning.

From the beginning, one can see how she lives vicariously through her girls — June (Michelle Brandenberg as a child and Lauren Wagner as an adult) and Louise (Allison Parris as a child and Deanna Harris as an adult) — and how she pushes so hard because she wants them to go further than she did.

Mama Rose has June and Louise stuck in the dregs of the vaudeville circuit because that is where she wanted to prove herself. To see Mama Rose pantomime the numbers from the side of the stage causes one to cringe at her pushiness and single-mindedness, but also to feel a pang because that is where life has relegated her.

Miss Migliaccio’s Rose can be maddening in her ambition, but she also has softness and youthfulness, so one never forgets that she is a woman with needs and dreams instead of a one-dimensional monster.

By the end, when shy and awkward Louise has turned into the world-famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and Rose is left without a project for the first time in her life, the audience is well-prepared for “Rose’s Turn,” a tour de force in which she comes up against her demons. Rage and frustration are there, but what marks Miss Migliaccio’s performance is the tinge of acceptance — a sense that she did what she did and she’s not sorry. Her Rose is so strong, the audience can almost gloss over the production’s shortcomings.

Lou Stancari’s set, a rickety train depot, takes a little getting used to because it bears a striking resemblance to the set in the second act of “Crazy for You.” Then one takes into account Miss Lee’s emphasis on the gypsy aspect of “Gypsy” — that is, the endless drone of travel, uncomfortable hotel rooms and scanty food that make up the lifestyle of traveling entertainers and dancers — and the dilapidated wood set seems surprisingly flexible for scenes that range from vaudeville houses to myriad backstage spaces. Still, it makes the production seem oddly dreary and trampled-looking.

The other performances are not as consistently strong as that of Miss Migliaccio. Lawrence Redmond as the amazingly patient Herbie proves an excellent foil to Mama Rose. He is devoted and fatherly without being too much of a schlub. One suspects he is the man behind the power, quietly setting up the deals that help the family survive. His voice also mingles beautifully with the full-bore splendor of Miss Migliaccio’s.

Both Junes energetically convey the cheesy perkiness of someone forced to play “America’s Sweetheart” three performances a day and punctuate their high kicks with girlish squeaks. Similarly, Miss Parris and Miss Harris are both lovely in the role of the second-banana sister, Louise. Miss Harris is particularly fine in the scenes where she quietly shows her backbone and resourcefulness as she escapes from her mother’s grip.

The most disappointing bit in this “Gypsy” is usually its most show-stopping, the “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number in which three seasoned strippers advise Louise on how to take it off with panache. Sherri Edelen, Karma Camp and Lauri Kraft appear to lack the campy energy needed for the number to catch fire — instead of world-weary performers, they come off as merely exhausted.

The show overall peaks and dips in energy, which is curious in a production that should just build and build. Perhaps Miss Lee means to convey that show business is a drudge or that vaudeville is truly dead (something we knew before entering the theater).

Luckily, we have the vital life force of Mama Rose — and the more disciplined drive of her daughter Gypsy Rose Lee — to see us through a production that is good but could have been great.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: “Gypsy”WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run, ArlingtonWHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 25TICKETS: $28 to $30PHONE:800/955-5566 or 703/218-6500

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