Many shows in South Florida have had to be canceled or postponed because of the COVID pandemic, but the Wick Theatre’s production of the musical Gypsy has toughed it out and barreled on – just like its leading character, Mama Rose Hovick, the ultimate stage mother.
Veteran director Norb Joerder has dozens of shows to his credit, but he has never experienced anything as nerve-wracking as mounting one under COVID conditions. He reports that seven cast members have tested positive and had to be quarantined since rehearsals began.
“I have never had the full cast onstage since we started,” Joerder said by telephone during the show’s previews. This is despite the fact that the entire cast and crew is fully vaccinated and COVID-tested three times a week. “To her credit, (executive producer Marilynn Wick) is doing everything possible.”
“But COVID is one of those things where you can do everything right and it doesn’t matter,” says actress Laura Hodos, who plays Mama Rose. “We didn’t take off our masks until the first public performance.”
Despite the challenges, this production of Gypsy is shaping up to be a winner.
“You can blame the pandemic for it, but if anything wonderful came out of it, it’s getting this group of damn stars all in one place to do a show that is so epic and so sensational and so wonderful, you’re just not going to regret seeing it,” insists Hodos.
The 1959 show – about how Rose pushed her two daughters, striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and actress June Havoc, to stardom – is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. For starters, it has music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents.
“‘Gypsy’’s music is exceptional. It has the best overture of any musical ever written,” says Hodos. “Lyrically it’s exceptional. Getting to do a Sondheim show so soon after his death is like a little piece of homage. Getting to do this particular show at this particular time, I feel like it’s a personal gift.”
She has played Mama Rose before, three years ago at the historic Titusville Playhouse on Florida’s Space Coast. Hodos recalls that experience fondly and says, “I couldn’t wait to get back to her. I think Rose is my favorite character, because there is so much to her. I certainly had something in mind, bur Norb just opened up my mind to a lot of things that I hadn’t considered. So I looked at it in a totally new way. I loved that.”
Her having the songs and the dialogue already in her head proved very helpful, since Hodos had to miss the first four days of an already brief rehearsal period because she was performing another show elsewhere.
“So I’m thinking, ‘How do you do ‘Gypsy’ in two weeks and Mama Rose isn’t there for the first four days?,’ recalls Joerder. “But then, nobody else was there, either. Normally we have 14 days of rehearsal. This time, because we had to close down so many times, we only had eight days of rehearsal before we moved into the theater, It’s like one-week stock almost. But it’s happening.”
Joerder has already directed Gypsy six times previously, with such stars as Lainie Kazan and Morgan Fairchild, “all these ladies who are older.” In contrast, Hodos “brings a youth to it and an energy,” which is actually more in line with the real Rose Hovick. “Rose wasn’t that old … when she had her kids,” he notes. (Indeed, Rose Hovick, a teenage bride, was only 19 when she had Louise and 21 when she gave birth to Ellen.)
As a result, Hodos gets to emphasize the character’s sensuality.
“Our Mama Rose is young enough and flirty enough that it works really well, for me anyway. She uses sex the way other use sweetness, to get her way. She flirts with all the theater managers, y’know, to get her kids hired.”
That approach to the role helps to make persuasive Rose’s relationship with Herbie, who becomes the vaudeville act’s manager and Rose’s lover. “There are times with Herbie that she charms him and seduces him into what she wants,” says Hodos. “I am a firm believer that she absolutely loves him, in her way, and I believe it’s true love. And that’s why it’s so devastating when he finally stands up to her and leaves her. She doesn’t understand why everyone leaves her, because she loves them.”
Rose’s actions are often described as “monstrous,” but Hodos disagrees. “Monstrous is one way to put it, but I think it’s protective. Everything she does is to make sure her children have a better life,” she says. “Even when she pushes Louise to strip, it’s because she can be a star, she can get the salary and the status that Mama thinks she deserves. You can look at it as monstrous, but when you’re a mom, your one goal is to make sure your children are successful and protected.”
The complexity of the role has led some reviewers to compare it to such towering classical characters as King Lear. “You are running the gamut of every single emotion and every single cunning and conniving and charming,” says Hodos. “Because she has to use everything in order to get what she wants.
“And another thing, Rose never stops talking, because she’s always trying to get something from someone. Yes, it’s on the level of Lear, but with singing and dancing. Even if you only look at ‘Rose’s Turn’,” her finale aria-cum-mental-breakdown, “in its entirety it’s like a full Shakespearean play.”
In short, Joerder says of Gypsy, “It’s a classic, and we’re doing a lovely production of it. Theatergoers will laugh, they’ll be moved. Come and enjoy it.”
GYPSY. Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Jan. 30. $75+$4 fee to $95+$4 fee. 561-995-2333 or visit thewick.org.