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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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Books

A travel memoir with a queer, Black sensibility

Nonbinary author Shayla Lawson is the Joan Didion of our time

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‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Joan Didion, one of the greatest writers and journalists of the 20th century and 2000s, wrote superbly crafted essays – telling engaging stories about the places she traveled to. Reading her, you sensed Didion reacting personally to her travels, and, as a writer, clocking it. To write in stories for her readers. 

Shayla Lawson, a nonbinary, Black, disabled poet and journalist, is the Joan Didion of our time.

Their new work, “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir,” is a provocative, impeccably crafted, hard-to-put down, travel memoir in essays. (Lawson uses they/them pronouns.)

Lawson is author of “This is Major,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle and the LAMBDA Literary Award, and the author of two poetry collections, “A Special Education in Human Being” and “I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean.”  They have written for New York Magazine, Salon, ESPN and Paper, and earned fellowships from the Yaddo and the MacDowell Artist Colony.

Yet, despite this impressive track record, Lawson, who grew up in Kentucky, and has lived and traveled everywhere from the Netherlands to Brazil to Los Angeles to Kyoto, Japan to Mexico to Shanghai, had to wait nine years before a publisher would wrap their head around releasing a travel memoir in essays.

Thankfully, Lawson had the  chutzpah to persist in seeking a home for her memoir. Kudos to Tiny Reparations Books for valuing Lawson’s writing and publishing ‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World.”

From the get-go of their memoir, Lawson draws us in. We’re with them on the plane. Right away, we’re with Lawson – a writer who’s clocking it  – telling their story – while they’re on the plane. At the same time, we’re reading the story that Lawson’s writing. 

In a few nano-secs, we get that Lawson’s stories have a queer, Black sensibility.

“Our story starts in an airplane,” Lawson writes in the opening of the memoir, “with the sound of long acrylic nails tapping on laptop keys, the sound of black femme poetics…”

“Only connect,” writes queer writer E.M. Forster in his 1910 novel “Howards End.”

Lawson’s daring memoir is a dazzling mosaic of connections between race, class, gender, sexuality, death, queerness, love, disability, grief and beauty.

Lawson met Kees, their ex-husband, a white man from the Netherlands, when he was in Harlem during a layover on a flight to Brazil for a six-month back-packing trip through South America, Lawson recalls. They meet cute over pizza, fall in love, and marry.

In the Netherlands, Lawson has to learn a new language and is stuck living in a beautiful, but boring village. They volunteer at a refugee village, that Lawson discovered had been an “insane asylum.” That village, Lawson thought, wasn’t  beautiful.

Lawson discovers beauty and sexuality when she meets up with a hunky gondolier in Venice.

In post-dictatorship Zimbabwe, they experience what it’s like to hang out with other Black people, where everyone is Black. 

In one of the memoir’s most compelling chapters, Lawson visits artist Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City. Kahlo was disabled. She had spina bifida.

At age 39, Lawson was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. They have chronic pain from the disability.

A doctor (with the bedside manner of Attila the Hun) told Lawson that they would die. “It’s a strong presentation,” Lawson remembers the doc said to her.

Often, disability is left out of storytelling. If included, it’s put in a box – separated, disconnected, from other intersections of the narrative (gender, sexuality, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.).

One out of five Americans is disabled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Lawson writes, post-COVID that 60 percent of Americans have been diagnosed as chronically ill.

Lawson brings ableism out of the shadows.

I’m white, cisgender, queer and legally blind. I’m one of the many for whom Lawson’s experience of ableism will ring true.

They’ve “called me a bitch,” for moving slower, Lawson writes.

The last time Lawson traveled when “I didn’t return in a wheelchair,” was 2019, they write.

But that won’t stop them from traveling, Lawson writes.

“How do I want to live,” Lawson asks, “in such a way that someone will be honored by how I die.”

“How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is exhilarating, but sometimes discomforting reading. Lawson makes you think. If you’re white and, using all the right pronouns, for instance, you can still be clueless about racism or being entitled.

But Lawson’s memoir isn’t a hectoring sermon. It’s a frisson of freedom, liberation and hope.

“No matter where you are, may you always be certain who you are,” Lawson writes, “And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Check it out. You won’t be able to get it out of your head.

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Out & About

Dupont Underground to celebrate Women’s History Month

Exhibition features multiple forms of visual art

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Dupont Underground will open “Thoughts, Questions and Shit to Say,” on Friday, March 8, in celebration of Women’s History Month.

This is an exhibition featuring multiple forms of visual art to celebrate the complexity of the D.C. region’s female artists’ narratives.

 The exhibition, featuring more than 20 local female artists, features sculptures, paintings, and other forms of visual art intentionally curated to encourage a dialogue around issues that resonate with women across various cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. 

Tickets are available at dupontunderground.com.

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Out & About

Rehoboth author Will Freshwater to hold book signing

Writer of ‘The Dark Horse’ to take audience questions

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Author Will Freshwater signs copies of his new book, ‘The Dark Horse’ on March 23 in Rehoboth Beach. (Book cover image courtesy Amazon)

Rehoboth Beach-based author Will Freshwater is back with the third and final installment in his popular Provincetown series of books chronicling the lives and relationships of Max, Peter, and Danny. Freshwater, a former D.C. resident, will read from his new book “The Dark Horse” and take audience questions. 

Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff will moderate the event, which is scheduled for Saturday, March 23, 5-7 p.m. at The Top of the Pines in Rehoboth Beach. 

Reserve your free spot by registering at TOTPShows.com and join the community in celebrating the release of “The Dark Horse.”

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