by Michael Bowen

In the movies of our lives, we are all, each one of us, the star. Other people come and go, playing their petty parts, but I, me, myself -- there's the focus. We lead our lives for ourselves, full of ourselves.

As a self-centered manipulator, Mama Rose lives life by herself. In the current production of Gypsy at Spokane Civic Theater (through Nov. 1), Patty Duke warms slowly to the role, then nails the part's hollow self-promotion.

For Mama not only insists on being the star of her own show -- she shanghais the people around her, even coerces her own daughters to star in a play of her own imagining. The play's really about her, always about her -- except that she can't fill the role herself. "If I coulda, I woulda -- that's show business," she murmurs near the end, and it's a line that rescues her from a vortex of egotism and insanity.

Gypsy's subtitle, after all, is "A Musical Fable": There's a moral lesson to be learned here, and it's not one that thinks highly of Little League dads or beauty pageant moms.

Or of moms like Mama Rose, who push and prod their kids. We meet some of those stage mothers in the opening sequence, which has good energy, with a half-dozen kids jostling around while auditioning for Uncle Jocko (Jim Phillips, in a strong comic turn). The scene manages to avoid most of the saccharine cutesiness usually associated with such scenes. But Duke isn't as overbearing in this scene as Mama needs to be: Mama is funny in this scene, but she's also a driving force.

They're packin' 'em in for Gypsy because of the name on the marquee. And Patty Duke is accomplished, even haunting, in the two act-ending finales, "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn." Singing is not her strong suit, but dramatic acting is, and that gift merges into the context of "Roses" so powerfully that everyone comes out smelling quite nice, indeed.

But Duke's performance isn't the only reason to see this version of the tale of Mama Rose and her two daughters, her would-be husband and her own insecure little self.

In fact, the first half of the first act seemed flat: Duke's voice was sometimes scratchy, the pace was down and the book subjects us to a series of painfully amateurish (funny, but still painful) little kids' vaudeville acts. The silliness of "Mr. Goldstone" seems designed just to throw in another fun number.

But then suddenly, midway through the first half of the show, Louise solos in "Little Lamb" -- a neglected girl's longing -- and Danae Lowman brought so much sad beauty to the moment that we could see, even in shabby surroundings, the brightness of the star that she would become.

And the momentum builds from there. Rose and Herbie (Reed McColm) have their nice little love song in the Chinese restaurant, "You'll Never Get Away From Me" (where I found myself wishing that Herbie, and McColm's voice, had a bigger part to play). The voices and comedic abilities of Louise and the older June, no longer a Baby (Andrea Westerman), work well together when the two sisters fantasize "If Momma Was Married."

Greg Pschirrer, as Tulsa, puts on a little tap-dance clinic for "All I Need Is the Girl," though Lowman brings special poignance to Louise's faint mimicry of Tulsa's dance moves. She wants to be his Ginger Rodgers, though at this point she's still being overlooked.

This is choreographer Kathie Doyle-Lipe's finest moment: She designs the dance so that Lowman appears full of longing while halting in her movements, and then somehow finds a more fluid path, merging into Pschirrer's flashy dancing. They're a team, but only for a moment. All of which sets up the first-act finale in that Omaha train station.

Given the backdrop later on for the (wonderfully, comically amateurish) "Toreadorables" number -- which takes place in "Desert Country, Texas" -- certainly the Civic could've concocted a railroad platform in Omaha, with the rails extending out to a flat, desolate horizon. Instead, director Marilyn Langbehn -- along with Technical Director Peter Hardie and Set Designer and Scenic Artist Nik Adams -- opted in the first-act finale for a minimal set: a single bench isolated on a cavernous, all-black stage. The effect was funereal. It accentuates the moment when Mama, despite learning that she's been deserted not only by most of her vaudeville cast but even by her favored daughter, nevertheless summons up the gumption (the monstrous egoism?) to rebound by corralling Louise into the show-biz life that she herself never had. She doggedly insists that everything's coming up roses, and we both admire the sentiment and are appalled by it.

Another strong presence in this show is McColm's Herbie, the noble and all-enduring man who books Rose's shabby shows and puts up with her selfishness. From his first entrance, in black hat and with a salesman's tattered samples case, McColm dominates scenes. He and Duke hold their first tentative handshake, but without getting all cheesy on us. The script hampers his first meeting with Rose ("Small World"), moving along from chance meeting to joyous intimacy in about three minutes, but when the number develops into a hint of a duet, McColm's voice is rich and reassuring, energizing the end of that song.

The strength of the key players around Rose is echoed in the rest of the cast. For the backstage visit to a house of burlesque in Act Two, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," we meet some of the strippers who are instrumental in the transformation of Louise into Gypsy Rose Lee.

As Mazeppa, Kate Vita toots a trumpet; Maria Caprile as Tessie Tura has, er, a distinctive costume trick; and as for Chasity Kohlman's Electra -- well, my sinfulness doesn't derive from staring at her along with the other two. But it would be sinful to reveal what Electra's gimmick is. These ain't just broads who show a little skin; these ladies are true ecdysiasts. (They've earned the title.)

They temporarily steal the show, and they're not afraid to expose either their idiosyncrasies -- or their epidermis -- to public view.

For a community theater, this show boasts strong production values. "Baby June and the Newsboys," for example, features the best use of a strobe light I've ever witnessed on a stage -- anywhere. There's patriotic bunting being flown in, live animals onstage and all manner of lighting effects, for which Peter Hardie again deserves credit: marquee lights, glittery lights, back-lighting effects and more.

At one point, Rose insists that "Everybody needs something impossible to hope for," and it's good advice. Our lives are wired for dissatisfaction.

Problem is, Rose chases after her dreams even when it means trampling someone else's.

Nevertheless, throughout it all, Duke and the rest of Langbehn's cast grab us by the lapels. Let us entertain you, they seem to be demanding. And they do.

Publication date: 09/25/03

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition — Journey From Sketch to Screen @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.