If it’s challenging to walk in the shadow of greatness, treading in two great shadows is daring. It’s an achievement of another order of magnitude to shine your light so brightly as to blend all three images into a moment of greatness. That’s what it was like watching Debbie Barber-Eaton play Rose, as in the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, the hallmark, powerhouse role for both the late great film star Rosalind Russell and for stage virtuoso Ethel Merman.
But here are the kickers. Russell didn’t sing her own songs in the film, and Merman isn’t especially remembered for her acting. Throughout 2nd Star Productions’ Gypsy at the Bowie Playhouse, Barber-Eaton not only riveted us with her stunning portrayal, but also had us willing her to breathe between numbers. Her stamina and appeal are exhausting. Russell and Merman would be proud.
And blessed-be, the lights did shine, as the entire cast was superb, expertly selected and directed by Ron Giddings to play a myriad of children, teens and adults, with half of the 24 actors performing multiple roles.
Jim Reiter set a new standard for Rose’s meal-ticket Herbie, not that Karl Malden was lacking, but because Reiter made the role his own. His ongoing dance with Rose was as brilliant and natural as a one-sided dance could be. He plays a more sincere Herbie and shrinks from Rose a bit more strongly. Maybe Malden was too large to shrink, but Reiter’s intermittent strongly assertive and then faltering voice inflections along with his subtle physical gestures — a head tilt here, a shoulder shrug there — gave the character a refreshing and remorse-filled tenderness.
Above all, the production is fun and moving, with a peppy orchestra playing memorable music by Jule Styne with lyrics by the master Stephen Sondheim, with seamless choreography, including slapstick and pratfalls, sideways jokes and sideways glances. It’s Vaudeville, baby!
Then Natalie Wood — I mean Lindsey Litka — sang. Stop the show. I’m confused. A beautiful girl who could have been Natalie Wood playing Louise, but singing more sweetly, turned from a wall to a flower right before our eyes. Litka lit it up.
One of the special treats of the play, which is based on the autobiography Gypsy: A Memoir and covers a decade in the star’s life, is the transformation of the characters. None is better personified than Litka’s Gypsy Rose Lee. In two hours, she seamlessly changes from the unnoticeable sidekick sister to the spotlight-seizing stripper supreme.
Then Barber-Eaton belts out Everything’s Coming Up Roses as the first act ends. The first act? There’s more? My head is spinning. Good God, burlesque is brutal.
Stripping is a small part of the story, but there’s a steamy number you’ll never forget. In You Gotta Have a Gimmick, Kylie Airin Sjolie, Tami Howie and Rowena Winkler — playing seasoned strippers Mazeppa, Tessie Tura and Electra — show a young girl how to behave while undressing.
Speaking of young, the youngsters in Gypsy played their roles to perfection, from little Sophie Miller as the bullied Balloon Girl to Jillian Sank as Baby June and Madeleine McComb as Baby Louise.
A must-see: two socks off! If you want an evening of good fun, great music and gifted acting, Bowie Playhouse is the place to be.
FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, thru June 29, at Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park, Bowie, $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.