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The Fort Wayne Civic stages iconic musical Gypsy
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
It probably says something about the musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable that two out of the three lead actresses starring in the Fort Wayne Civic’s production describe their roles as “bucket list” roles.
And to describe the play itself, all three use the word “iconic.”
“This seems to be the iconic Broadway show,” says Chrissy Borne, who plays June Hovick, daughter of Momma Rose and sister of Louise. “If you think ‘Broadway musical,’ a lot of times you’ll hear a song from Gypsy in your head.”
More than likely, that song will be “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” probably the biggest and most famous show stopper in a show full of them, and sung by some of the Broadway stage’s biggest leading ladies — Patty LaPone, Ethyl Merman, Bernadette Peters… even Angela Landsbury.
It’s Maggie Kole Hunter who tackles that number in the Civic’s production of Gypsy. Hunter plays Momma Rose, and once again, when you think of lead parts for actresses in Broadway musicals, it doesn’t get much bigger than Momma Rose… “I call it my ‘bucket list’ role,” laughs Hunter, adding that she had missed the opportunity to play the role in the past, but when the chance came up this time around, she went to the audition prepared. “There’s a lot to the role — physically, vocally, emotionally, psychologically. It’s probably one of the greatest roles in musical theater for a woman.”
Based on the memoirs of famous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy tells the story of Gypsy’s mother Rose and her efforts — sometimes pretty ruthless efforts — to turn her daughters Louise (Gypsy’s real name) and June into vaudeville stars. Momma Rose is the ultimate stage mother, and it’s youngest daughter June whom she pins most of her hopes and dreams on. “She’s always riding her daughter, making sure she’s perfect,” says Chrissy Borne. “When they’re younger, she even goes so far as to not tell her daughters how old they are. She celebrates their 10th birthday every year.”
Rose has even been called a “monster,” though Hunter thinks that’s an inaccurate assessment. “She’s a woman who fiercely loves her children and wants more for them than she had,” says Hunter. “One of the great lines in the play is when she says ‘I was born too soon and started too late,’ and I think that’s Rose perfectly.”
“If you look at the time period in which it’s set — the 20s and 30s — she had to be the way she was,” Hunter continues. “She was so focused on making her daughter successful and making them a star. She was one of a host of women who had to live in a man’s world, and she just plowed through that and wanted her kids to have success.”
Rose and her daughters actually get along pretty well together, until June begins to realize that there’s much more out there than the vaudeville circuit. When she elopes at age 15 or 16 with one of the chorus boys (and, under the name June Havoc, becomes a famous actress with a long list of credits to her name), Momma Rose turns her efforts to eldest daughter Louise, played by Jessica Butler.
Louise had always been part of the act, but she didn’t seem to have the natural talent for singing and dancing that June did. In fact, in one of the great ironies, a woman who went on to fame and fortune as a burlesque dancer began her stage career by often playing a boy. “She was the tomboy,” says Butler. “Whenever they needed a boy in the show, that part always fell to Louise.”
And in another irony, Butler — whose local stage resume boasts many, many musicals, including one of the leads in Chicago last fall — plays a character who can’t sing, dance, or act all that well. “At one point, we were rehearsing a scene where Louise is performing on stage, and Gary (Lanier, choreographer) kept telling me ‘don’t move your feet so much. We can still see your dance training coming through’,” Butler says.
Chrissy Borne also says negotiating her character as performer and her character as character is a little tricky. “When June is performing or auditioning, she has to be cutesy and on point with her singing and dancing. The she comes off-stage, and she’s arguing with her mother, because June has realized there’s more out there than vaudeville.”
After June leaves, Louise finds her skill set when her mother’s act is mistakenly booked in a burlesque club. One of the dancers can’t make it (she’s been arrested), so Rose has her daughter take the stage. One of the straps on Louise’s dress falls off her shoulder, and a star is born. Burlesque was considered pretty racy back in the 30s, but Louise as Gypsy became very well known. She also wrote a play and a couple novels, appeared in many movies, and became something of a household name. “In real life, she was a great comedian,” Butler says. “ When Louise becomes Gypsy, her routines aren’t dance routines; they’re more comedy routines. It was striptease with an emphasis on the ‘tease.’ Louise was actually kind of a modest person.”
Louise was on Butler’s “bucket list” of roles after she saw a revival of Gypsy in New York a few years ago, and when I mention that Maggie Kole Hunter used the same phrase when talking about Momma Rose, Butler isn’t surprised. “That’s the thing: Momma Rose and Louise are just great characters. The majority of actresses want to play one or the other at a certain point in their life. I already know I want to play Momma Rose some day.”
Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Gypsy
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturday, March 3 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, March 4 at 2:00 pm
Friday, November 9 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, March 10 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, March 11 at 2:00 pm
Friday, March 16 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, March 17 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, March 18 at 2:00 pm
$26 Adults; $18 age 23 and under; $22 Sunday Senior Matinees
Tickets available at the box office; or call (260) 424-5220; or online at fwcivic.org.