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Ferocious is how director Joe Calarco describes “Gypsy’s” Momma Rose, the unstoppable stage mother who’ll do whatever it takes to make her kids stars.
Probably the most formidable woman’s part in musical theater history, Rose is frequently compared to Shakespeare’s Lear and playing her has been likened to climbing Mount Everest twice. Those who’ve tackled the part include Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and more recently Patti LuPone. And now it’s local actor Sherri L. Edelen’s turn to take on the iconic role at Signature Theatre in a production staged by Calarco.
Who plays Rose always prompts discussion. To do it right requires a terrific voice, acting skills and comedic flair. And while Edelen won’t be scrutinized in the same way Broadway names inevitably are, comparisons will be made. Affable and smart, Edelen isn’t bothered: “Everyone sees how difficult and complex this woman is to play and they want to see if the actress can rise to the challenge. I let go of comparisons long ago. Every actress is different, so comparisons make no sense, really.”
But Edelen doesn’t dismiss the significance of the gig. Playing Rose is a big deal and she knows it. Until Calarco brought it up, she never thought she’d do the part. When Edelen was younger, she looked for the kind of supporting comic roles that she does so wonderfully, like the inn keeper’s unscrupulous wife in Signature’s “Les Misérables,” a superb performance for which she deservedly won a Helen Hayes Award. But as she got a little older, Edelen took on parts (and triumphed in) leading roles like Mrs. Lovett in Signature’s “Sweeney Todd” and as Margaret Johnson in “Light in the Piazza” with the Philadelphia Theatre Company. But still, Rose scared her: “She is fierce. She uses up all the energy in my body to inhabit her mind. And like those who play Lear, or any Shakespearean role really, the exploration will continue until closing and on until the next actress picks up Rose.”
“Gypsy” follows the rise of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Set in the ‘20s, it’s an incredible backstage story featuring Momma Rose and young daughters June and Louise (later Gypsy) who criss-cross the country in pursuit of fame and fortune. The mother of all stage mothers, Rose will stop at nothing to make her girls stars on the dying Vaudeville circuit. When June quits the act, Momma focuses her suffocating attentions on the less talented Louise.
With a sensational score boasting a thrilling overture and standards like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Some People,” “Together (Small World)” and Momma’s 11th hour cri de coeur “Rose’s Turn,” “Gypsy” is routinely named by many critics to be the best Broadway musicals ever. Based loosely on Gypsy Rose Lee’s bestselling memoir, “Gypsy” premiered on Broadway in 1959. It’s the creation of true musical theater titans: Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book). Sondheim is gay, as was Laurents who died in 2011 at 93.
During an interview for the Blade in 2004, Laurents shared an anecdote. Initially when asked to write a musical based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s bestselling biography, he wasn’t interested. But not long afterward he heard some gossip at a party. Reportedly Gypsy’s mother had had affairs women and once threw a hostile hotel manager from a fifth floor window. Laurents took the assignment. And while the musical would be called “Gypsy” for contractual reasons, it’s always really been about Rose. She’s the show’s driving force.
“I wish I had one ounce of her drive and confidence,” Edelen says. “I think playing her has made me more confident, more of a fighter for my own ideals. No one believes in her dream like she does: Not Herbie (Rose’s boyfriend). Not her children. Not anyone. She has no support system but herself really and yet she has the strength and belief in herself to carry on.”
Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer already had Edelen in mind when he made “Gypsy” a part of this year’s season. He never thought of bringing in a New York actor for the part. “We always wanted to do it with someone local. The talent pool here has gotten better and better, and we didn’t need to look beyond Washington. We’d done it before with Donna (Donna Migliaccio played Rose in Signature’s 2001 “Gypsy,” and plays the plum part Mezeppa the brassy stripper who bumps it with a trumpet in the current production) and it was time to give someone else the opportunity.”
Calarco, who’s worked with Edelen on eight shows, says she was ready to play Rose. In addition to having the voice, she understands comedy and is a great actress with a deep well from which to draw.
“If anyone can find the reason why Rose is so ferocious, it’s Sherri. She can explore that. Though it’s a musical, we play it like a play, focusing on Rose’s relationships with Herbie and daughter Louise (played here by Mitchell Hébert and Maria Rizzo, respectively).”
Rose isn’t much for introspection. As she sees it, she’s the ultimate loving mother doing her best to give her kids a fabulous life.
“I don‘t see Rose as a monster, the stage mother from hell, or a show off,” Edelen says. “I wanted to delve into why she operates the way she does, what is motivating her to behave the way she does. Only then can her vulnerability break through. … We all have joys and sorrows that shape us. Hopefully, if your readers come see the show, they can learn that she is vulnerable, just like everybody else and then you can understand what motivates her. Mr. Laurents tells you in his script and hands it to the audience on a silver platter, if they are listening.”