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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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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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Arts & Entertainment

Amy Schneider’s Jeopardy! winning streak ends at 40 games

Transgender contestant is the highest-earning woman in competition’s history

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(Photo Courtesy Casey Durkin/ Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Amy Schneider‘s record-setting Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end on Wednesday’s show after getting tripped up on the Final Jeopardy! clue.

Schneider is the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and she’s the highest-earning woman in the competition’s history, with a total of $1,382,800 from 40 wins.

Schneider was leading by $10,000 as the contestants headed into the all-important “Final Jeopardy!” category, she failed to answer the clue. It was, “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H, it’s also one of the 10 most populous.” Contestant Rhone Talsma managed to overtake Schneider when she answered, “What is Bangladesh?” the correct response. Schneider ended up with $19,600 versus Talsma’s $29,600.

“I think that the best part for me has been being on TV as my true self, expressing myself and representing the entire community of trans people,” Schneider told Good Morning America this week. “And just kind of showing a different thing than maybe some people have seen, of just being a smart, confident woman and just doing something super normal, like being on Jeopardy!.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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