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Categories: Culture

When Gypsy Rose Lee Came to San Francisco

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In the late 1960s, Gypsy Rose Lee — a famed burlesque performer known for her droll and “intellectual” stripteases — came to San Francisco and lived in a Tenderloin hotel to star in her own self-titled talk show.

If you tuned into KGO-TV, you might have seen Gypsy slinging a link of sausages like a scarf around her neck, or interviewing actor Richard Deacon about his insomnia, or pulling off her gloves with exaggerated movements — one of her most infamous stage acts. Gypsy Rose Lee was like no other entertainer of her day. Using bombast and a self-aware, wry humor, she would become a lasting icon in the burlesque.

The span of Gypsy Rose Lee’s life is the kind of stuff of Wikipedia rabbit holes, and its origin story was immortalized in 1959 by the six-time Tony Award-winning musical Gypsy, based off her 1957 memoir. Bay Area Musicals’ run of Gypsy plays at Alcazar Theatre through Dec. 8, and is a full-hearted rendition of her rags to riches journey against a backdrop of the Great Depression, and the toxic relationship shared between Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother.

Gyspy Rose Lee’s mother, Rose, isn’t the titular character, but she’s arguably an equal protagonist to Gypsy herself. Played by Ariela Morgenstern, Rose walks a fine line between an aggressively attentive mother and a selfish fame-seeker who is, for lack of a better term, clingy. Back when Gypsy was still named Louise, Rose cast her aside for her sister, June. (June was supposed to be the star, Louise was deemed “talentless.”) She drags them all over the country performing a washed-up vaudeville act that no one seems to enjoy. It’s only when June runs away that Rose starts to hone in all her energy onto Gypsy, desperate to make her into a star.

Listing all the manipulative tactics Rose uses to tighten her already ironclad grip on her daughters’ lives — sometimes at the expense of their own success or happiness — would just be summarizing the events of the play. What you need to know is how Ariela Morgenstern complicates the character, bringing a performance that is venomous when Rose is cruel, empathizable when Rose finds her original purpose obsolete, and undeniably admirable when Rose fights tooth and nail for her children. Morgenstern delivers the closing number, “Rose’s Turn,” with unhindered force.

And as for Gypsy herself — so much of Louise’s character growth is mashed into the penultimate song, when Louise, played by Jade Shojaee, transforms herself from a “talentless” insecure actor into the famed burlesque dancer that is Gypsy. The song Let Me Entertain You is a bit controversial: It’s repetitive, and it literally passes through eras in Gypsy’s career, trying to show how Gypsy becomes a star with not very much time. But Shojaee manages the character transformation elegantly. At the start of the song, Louise is shy, and unwilling to be in the spotlight. At the end, it’s hard to see Gypsy as anyone else but Gypsy.

Bay Area Musicals clearly brought the right people for the roles. (They also had a real life dog, Teddy Bear McNgyuen, playing Chowsie, eliciting many awwws from the audience.) The only detractions from their performances come from issues with the props and set: A stage curtain that refuses to close and loves to get caught on other props; unpainted wood that looks a bit sloppy in comparison to the care put into the rest of the set. It’s a nitpicky critique when the show manages to cycle through an impressive number of set pieces and settings with some clever tactics: signs projected on both sides of the theater, the back end of a train, Rose’s name spelled out in lights as tall as a person. This production of Gypsy is still a full-bodied dramatization of an incredible life, and of how despite all odds, everything (eventually) came up roses.

Gypsy, through Dec. 8, at Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St. $40-$85; 415-340-2207 or www.bamsf.org

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Grace Z. Li

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