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You probably shouldn’t expect a Gypsy that breaks the mold from a production, like this one, whose leading lady counts an Ethel Merman tribute show among her credits. In the years since Merman originated the role of Momma Rose—progenitor of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and the mother of all stage mothers—in the 1959 Broadway production, other actors have excavated character layers left unexplored by Merman’s bulldozer approach. In the last two Broadway revivals, Bernadette Peters found a surprising vulnerability, while Patti LuPone brought a raw, almost primal desperation. By contrast, the primary attributes of Drury Lane’s Rose, Klea Blackhurst, are a big voice and a cheerful indomitability. She’s funny and likable, but she won’t make you cry or shake in your boots.
Still, a Gypsy that skims the surface is better than most shows, thanks to Jule Styne’s brassy score, Stephen Sondheim’s witty lyrics and Arthur Laurents’s satisfying book, which improves on the factual record. William Osetek’s staging fares best with the musical’s comedy and moments of straightforward razzmatazz, as in the family’s wonderfully schmaltzy vaudeville routines and this production’s hands-down highlight, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” in which three burlesque vets pull out all the stops. Less successful is the climactic number, “Rose’s Turn,” the musical-theater equivalent of King Lear raging on the heath. Blackhurst displays flawless technical command—but then, the middle of a nervous breakdown is precisely when we should see some chinks in the rhinestone-studded armor.