In recent years the term “helicopter parent” has become ubiquitous, an implied dig on moms and dads who are way too involved in their children’s lives. Virginia Repertory Theatre’s crowd-pleasing production of “Gypsy” proves that parental overinvolvement has been going on for decades. Set in the 1920s and ’30s as vaudeville waned and died, this classic musical chronicles the tribulations of Mama Rose, theater’s iconic stage mom, who devotes her life to pushing her two daughters toward stardom they may or may not desire.
As inhabited by Robyn O’Neill, Mama Rose is the domineering force that drives the action, but she shies away from being the monster depicted in some portrayals. Rose’s actions are sometimes delusional, arguably abusive, but it’s hard not to root for her when O’Neill squares her jaw in the face of the character’s latest setback. Her performance really takes flight when she sings, her vocals reaching their true powerhouse potential in the first-act closer, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
The show starts with Mama Rose muscling her pre-adolescent daughters, June and Louise (Bridget Sindelar and Molly Nugent), into a local talent competition. June is always the centerpiece of the act, Louise consistently overlooked, even as the girls grow into young adulthood, a masterful midscene transition engineered by director Chase Kniffen. In the first-act showstopper, “If Mama Was Married,” the girls use dazzling harmony to paint a bittersweet picture of what life would be like with a traditional mom.
As the grown-up June, Catherine Carol Walker is a darkly comic delight, the sarcasm that drips from such lines as “What did the cow say, mama?” consistently drawing laughs. But it is Christie Jackson as Louise who gives the most nuanced and impressive portrayal, playing the meek and manipulated daughter who unexpectedly grows into a star the likes of which Rose would never have imagined.
Richmond newcomer Chris Hietikko also makes a good impression as Herbie, the good-natured agent whose love for Rose keeps him supporting her through increasingly desperate attempts to find inroads to big-time entertainment. With vaudeville declining precipitously, Herbie books the act in a burlesque house as a last resort. This prompts the highlight of the second act, a trio of Richmond favorites (Debra Clinton, Nicole Oberleitner and Susan Sanford) as burlesque artists outlining their strategies for successful stripping in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
Throughout the show, Jose Simbulan’s music direction and his performance as pianist and conductor are first rate. Hearing timeless tunes such as “Let Me Entertain You” and “All I Need Is the Girl” getting the full orchestra treatment may be worth the price of admission for some. Virginia Rep’s technical geniuses are characteristically impressive — Brian Prather’s flexible set design and Derek Dumais’ crisp sound design being particular standouts.
“Gypsy” premiered on Broadway 56 years ago and references to aspects of vaudeville like the Orpheum Circuit will fly right over the heads of most patrons. While some of the tropes are dated, the relative complexity of the characters keeps the show interesting and it’s hard to deny the significant appeal of this dynamic cast, led by O’Neill belting to beat the band. S
“Gypsy” plays at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St., through Jan. 10. Tickets and information available at va-rep.org.