As imported ringers go, Vicki Lewis continues to be a welcome visitor to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. The 5-foot-1 “bundle of dynamite” – to borrow a phrase from her current triumph in Gypsy – has won over audiences here in such unlikely roles as the pushy title matchmaker in Hello, Dolly! and comic villainess Miss Hannigan in Annie.
But neither performance quite prepared us for the raw ferocity Lewis brings to Mama Rose Hovick, the ultimate stage mother to celebrated striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. She may start slowly, but by the time she gets to the first act finale, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” with its subtext of desperation underneath lyrics of optimism, Lewis is well in command of the production.
Then, late in the second act, she outdoes herself with that great stream-of-consciousness primal scream, “Rose’s Turn,” an aria of regret over living vicariously through her unappreciative daughters. Rose may be out of control, but Lewis knows exactly what she is doing, capping a performance that will not be denied.
The show charts the last throes of vaudeville through the justifiable struggles of Baby June and Baby Louise and their back-up performers, all of whom are soon much older than they pretend to be. Eventually, June leaves the act – and the show – forcing Rose to turn her overbearing attentions to the previously ignored Louise. When booked by mistake into a seedy burlesque house, Rose pimps her daughter into stripping onstage, but genteelly, and Gypsy Rose Lee is born.
This fact-based show biz saga is told with surgical skill and snappy wisecracks by Arthur Laurents, with a been-there brassy score by composer Jule Styne and nimble lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Those lyrics brim with specificity, but grafted onto Styne’s bouncy, hummable melodies, such numbers as “Small World” and “Together (Wherever We Go)” have become pop standards.
Pint-sized Lewis towers over the production, but there isn’t a weak link in the entire cast. Emma Stratton impresses as Louise/Gypsy, making the trick transition from awkward duckling to self-assured swan. As Rose’s romantic interest and booking agent, John Scherer is a soft-hearted schnook who eventually grows a backbone.
As chorus boy Tulsa, Brett Thiele shines in his song-and-dance solo, “All I Need Is the Girl.” And in the surefire scene-stealer late in the second act, unlikely strippers Kirsten Wyatt, Katie Thompson and Jeanne Bennett score with their lesson in the art of striptease gimmickry.
Gypsy is on the move throughout the evening, symbolized by the vertical stacks of steamer trunks on the periphery of the Maltz stage and by the deftly employed central revolve of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt. Paul Miller’s versatile lighting delineates the action, onstage and off, and Leon Wiebers’ costumes go from vaudeville cheesy to Gypsy Rose’s several elegant fast-change and breakaway strip act gowns.
Gypsy is considered one of a handful of perfect musicals, but it is not an easy show to get right. Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge (Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof) is reverent to the material, while almost perversely avoiding the iconic staging of the show in past productions. What she – and Lewis – have come up with is not revolutionary, but it is original and effective and very satisfying.
GYPSY, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, April 9. $61 and up. Call: 561-575-2223.