STONEHAM - Funny, isn't it? The real star of "Gypsy" is not Gypsy Rose Lee, on whose memoirs the classic musical is loosely based, but her irresistibly appalling mother, Mama Rose. This quintessential stage mother demands a larger-than-life portrayal, one she certainly got when Ethel Merman originated the role.
Leigh Barrett, the wonderful local favorite who plays Rose in the Stoneham Theatre's solid production, has the big voice and big presence that the part requires. She also has the sensitivity to reveal Rose's softer, more human side; we can see clearly that Rose's ruthlessness, however excessive, grows not just out of her own frustrated show-biz ambitions but out of genuine love for the daughters she pushes onstage.
The tricky truth, though, is that if Rose seems too human, the show loses its edge. We have to see her monstrousness - especially at the key moment when her desperate need for the spotlight pushes her to turn the less talented of her two performing daughters, Louise, into a stripper named Gypsy Rose Lee. And here the very warmth of Barrett's voice and persona work against her. Even at her worst, this Rose is a little nice.
Still, Barrett's singing is, as ever, terrific; it's sheer pleasure to hear her power her way through "Everything's Coming Up Roses" or, more subtly, reveal her charm and humor in "Small World." She's pleasingly matched in that number, too, by Scott H. Severance, whose easy voice and understated gestures give the smitten agent, Herbie, a fully rounded personality - one totally flattened by the bulldozer that is Rose. All along, Severance lets us see Herbie's frustrations with Rose simmering underneath his baffled affection, so that we're as sad and unsurprised as he is when, finally, he sees that he'll never come first in her life.
Director Caitlin Lowans has assembled a uniformly sturdy cast, with particularly fine work from the sweet-voiced, gamine-faced Eve Kagan as Louise. Lowans gives the comic moments their due - especially the classically outrageous "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," with a hilarious turn by Vanessa Schukis as the trumpet-toting stripper Mazeppa - and she herds the flocks of child performers with aplomb. Occasionally the tempo lags; a few scene changes take longer than they should, and there are several slow moments in the show's three hours.
Mostly, though, this is a "Gypsy" worth seeing. Kelli Edwards's choreography is sharp and snazzy, with an affectionate grasp of period styles, and Todd C. Gordon directs a lively onstage band with verve. Even the minimal set, by Gianni Downs, feels appropriate not skimpy: Within a deliberately flat, painted "proscenium," scenes unfold with minimal props and suggestions of settings, hung on the kind of scaffolding that usually stays backstage.
That's exactly right for this quintessential backstage story. And so is the Stoneham Theatre as a setting. When it first opened, it was a vaudeville house, just the kind of place that Rose was trying to get her daughters booked into. As vaudeville faded, the theater faded, too, clinging to life as a movie theater and even a mattress factory. How pleasurable, then, to savor the story of a vaudeville survivor transformed into a burlesque star in a theater that's enjoyed a transformation of its own.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.