Curtain Up: “Gypsy” Opens at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Jul 10, 2014

Tony and Emmy award-winning actress Leslie Uggams stars as Rose in a production of "Gypsy" opening Thursday night at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, the professional producing arm of the drama department at the University of Connecticut. 

The show centers on Rose, one of the most challenging, almost mythic roles in American musical theatre. She is a mother who has a dream to raise her two daughters to be star performers in vaudeville. The play is loosely based on the real-life 1957 memoir of Rose’s daughter, who became the famous strip-tease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee.

Considered the ultimate stage mother, Rose has been played by some musical greats, such as Bernadette Peters:  

Artistic Director Vincent Cardinal described the role of Rose as “the King Lear of musical theater.” WNPR’s Diane Orson spoke with Cardinal and asked him why it is he considers the role to be a pillar in musical theater.

Vincent Cardinal: I’m not the only one to say that. For certain, that phrase has been going around, I think, since Ethel Merman opened the show. It’s apt, because the journey is one of a woman of incredible confidence and direction, and we see her diminished as she goes through the arc of the story even though all her intentions are the best. Her desires are really focused on her kids, and yet her selfishness and her own tunnel vision send her careening toward a sort of disaster in the same way that King Lear’s attempt to rule the world does the same thing.

It's also in terms of just sheer size, equivalent to a King Lear. The actress who plays Rose is onstage almost all the time. She has a major musical number then a major acting scene one right after the other, ending with probably one of the most difficult songs in the musical canon for the climax of the show. So it's one of those roles that requires an epic talent. We have Leslie Uggams in the role, and she certainly delivers.

Diane Orson: This is a non-traditional casting choice, because Leslie Uggams is African-American. Am I correct that this is a fairly non-traditional cast throughout?

It is non-traditional. We are in a university environment with the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. One of the great joys of being in a university environment is you’re surrounded by people from all over the world. We embrace our diverse world and the diverse people in it here, and the shows that we do reflect that diversity.

Leslie Uggams
Credit SmagguProductions Inc.

In speaking to an African-American person playing a person who was historical and who was white, one of the things that June Havoc -- who was the Baby June of the show in real life -- insisted that they call it [is] “A Musical Fable,” because it is not a documentary. It's based on and inspired by real people, but it really is a fictional work based on the words of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Can non-traditional casting come with a cost? Do you think it could be confusing sometimes to the audience?

Of course. I think if people can’t get past that kind of thing and they’re trying to figure out the genetics rather than follow the story, they could find themselves on a slippery slope of confusion. On the other hand, when you’re telling a story I think most of us very quickly move past those issues and go quickly to the human spirit and the journey of the human spirit. And no matter what your color is, you can identify with a mother who loves her children.