Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Any company presenting the 1959 musical by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) has to compete with the legend of Jerome Robbins' original direction and choreography and Ethel Merman's galvanic performance as Rose. (However, the show lost the Tony Award for Best Musical to The Sound of Music and Fiorello!, which tied.) Four subsequent Broadway revivals have kept the work visible, most recently in the stunning 2008 production with Patti LuPone.
Rather than trying to dazzle the audience with elaborate staging, Calarco has opted for a streamlined physical production that takes its visual cues from the world of vaudeville. Scenic designer James Kronzer has turned the cozy MAX Theatre into an early 20th-century setting of paneled wood stage boxes, brick walls papered with ancient theatrical posters, and footlights. Even the domestic scenes appear with the help of two-dimensional flats on rolling easels.
Calarco, along with choreographer Karma Camp, understands the manic energy that drives Rose, and by extension the daughters she shepherds into stardom: Baby June (Erin Cearlock) sells herself onstage with an unnerving, wide-mouthed smile, which calcifies into Dainty June's (Nicole Mangi) calculated squeal and helium-high voice. On the other hand, Baby Louise (Ellen Roberts) realizes early that her place in the act is to be as invisible as possible; the adult Louise (Maria Rizzo) doesn't emerge from her shell and blossom into burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee until she can make direct contact with her audience.
Mitchell Hébert provides a warm, reassuring presence as Herbie, the agent who smooths over Rose's eccentricities. Standouts in smaller roles are Vincent Kempski as Tulsa, the chorus boy with big dreams, and the uproarious trio of small-time strippers: Mazeppa (Donna Migliaccio with a tough attitude and a trumpet), Tessie Tura (Sandy Bainum, dainty despite her surroundings), and Electra (Tracy Lynn Olivera, wide-eyed and vague).
Frank Labovitz's costumes and Chris Lee's lighting design enhance the sense of theater as life. Music director Jon Kalbfleisch gets a full sound out of his 10 musicians.