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A ‘Rose’ by any other name

Theater vet Edelen tackles iconic stage mom role in ‘Gypsy’

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Sherri L. Edelen, Momma Rose, Maria Rizzo, Louise, Gypsy, Signature Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade
Sherri L. Edelen, Momma Rose, Maria Rizzo, Louise, Gypsy, Signature Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Sherri L. Edelen, left, as Momma Rose, and Maria Rizzo as Louise in ‘Gypsy,’ playing now at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy Signature)

‘Gypsy’

Through Jan. 26

Signature Theatre

4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington

$40-99

703-820-9771

Signature-theatre.org

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.”

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PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Review

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop

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Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Review at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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