Capital City Theatre puts on rock-solid production of ‘Gypsy’

Production showing at Overture Center's Capitol...
Capital City Theatre puts on rock-solid production of ‘Gypsy’
"Everyone needs something impossible to believe in": Mama Rose (Michelle Ragusa, center) got the memo, but Herbie (Sean Thomas) and Louise (Liz Griffith) aren't so sure.

She’s the timeless template for the domineering stage mom, and you just know that if she were alive today, she’d have her own reality television network, with multiple channels featuring the cheeseball/risque exploits of her two aggrieved daughters. Kris Jenner may have her Kardashian empire, but she’s got nothing on Mama Rose, as Capital City Theatre and Broadway vet Michelle Ragusa reminded us last weekend with their production of “Gypsy” in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

Ragusa played Rose, whose dogged determination drove her youngest daughter to become the internationally renowned burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. As a virtual force of nature, a woman unafraid to beat everyone around her with a sheer bluster of belief. It was a compelling portrait of a not entirely likable character, bolstered by Ragusa’s powerful singing voice. In numbers like “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” a song she shares with fellow national actor Sean Thomas, who plays Rose’s long-suffering paramour and agent Herbie. Throughout the show, Thomas and Ragusa shared a sweet, shopworn chemistry that never once felt false.

Madison actor Liz Griffith was Louise, the less-talented by ultimately more successful daughter, and her payoff didn’t truly come until late in the second act, when she finally finds her voice and her calling. Griffith imbued plenty of her own grim determination into Louise, who spends much of the show in the saccharine shadow of her younger sister June (regional vet Sarah M. O’Connor). Hers was one of the most authentic performances in the show.

The moment when Ragusa’s Mama pivots on nine cents less than a dime to shift her dreams of stage stardom from her younger to her older daughter is as terrifying as it is funny, and the audience’s nervous laughter in reaction to it is the perfect example of how Ragusa’s character is viewed. She’s got the charisma and self-confidence to go on in the face of anything, but there’s an emotional cost to her single-minded self-centeredness, and it’s written on the faces of Griffith and Thomas’ faces when their characters realize she’s never going to give up her dreams to live a comfortable family life. It was the show’s most heartbreakingly emotional moment.

Shout-outs to the local talent, who more than held their own with the national talent crowd. Irascible Donovan Armbruster shows up in multiple vaudeville stage manager roles. Christopher MacGregor stood out in his role as Tulsa, the male lead in the dancing ensemble that backs June and Louise, thanks to “All I Need is the Girl,” his dancing duet with Griffith.

The lack of true sets (this was a staged concert performance) took nothing away from the proceedings. There were more than enough stage props (racks of clothing, cafe tables, dressing room mirrors, a cow costume) to make each scene convincing. Other strategies also worked well: Identifying the changing scene names and locations by swapping out boxing-match style placards wasn’t just efficient, but also fit the vaudevillian vibe. The strobe-light effect used to fast-forward June and Louise from the teen actors portraying them (KyLee Hennes and Jane Hobson) to their adult counterparts was a nice piece of stagecraft. And the sudden appearance of a star-studded scrim lit up the stage in fascinating ways, including creating a nice backdrop for artistic director Andrew Abrams, who directed the show’s solid orchestra from onstage.

It’s still an exercise in whiplash storytelling when Louise goes from nervous first-time burlesquer to international stripper phenomenon in the space of five minutes of stage time, but hey, the show must go on, even if it feels like someone accidentally bumped the fast-forward button. Capital City opted to stage the happy-ending version of the show, so Rose and Louise got their touching reconciliatory scene and Rose got to carry on with her show-stopping final number, name-in-lights and all, her delusions of stage grandeur effectively untarnished.

“Everybody needs something impossible to believe in,” Rose tells Herbie and Louise late in the show. Only one of them ends up actually agreeing with her, but it’s not hard to argue that her point extends to Cap City, who’s now checked off another box on the master plan–staging a show in the Overture Center. They’ve shown us they can compile the national and local talent to do a modern show (last year’s production of “Violet”) and, now, one of the all-time classics. Color us interested to see what they can do next year, when they plan to stage two shows.