Karen Ziemba’s Star Turn In ‘Gypsy’ at Sharon Playhouse
By Dan Shaw
Mama Rose, the nervy and domineering stage mother, is one of the greatest roles in the American musical theater canon. It’s a part for a woman of a certain age and must be portrayed by a seasoned actress like the Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba, who received a Tony Award for “Contact” and Tony nominations for “Steel Pier” and “Never Gonna Dance.” The irony — or inherent logic — of Jules Stein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy” is that the star-starved Rose (aka Madam Rose) gets to be the star, albeit tragically. There is madness to her method — ruthless, bone chilling and breathtaking. And it is poignant that an actress of Ziemba’s caliber is playing this part as a wannabe at the Sharon Playhouse, which is traditionally a launch pad for up-and-coming actors rather than a showcase for established stars.
While she may not have the box office draw for today’s celebrity-obsessed Broadway audiences, Ziemba is the undeniable reason why this production of “Gypsy” is so powerful and unforgettable. Pushing her younger daughter, Dainty June (Julia Hemp), to be a star and dragging along her older daughter, Louise (Kyra Kennedy), Ziemba’s Rose is obviously treacherous and indomitable. Still, for much of the first act, the show is played as comedy. Rose puts her daughters — and the young children she adopts along the way as their backup dancers — in variations on the same ridiculous routine as she denies they’ve turned into adults. They are prisoners of her unbridled ambition. She is just as determined to hold onto her agent and suitor, Herbie (Rufus Collins), an obsession that escalates through numbers like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.” That she is also a fun-loving monster is evident in “Mr. Goldstone,” the endearingly manic charm song. And even the daughters’ lament, “If Momma Was Married,” is a duet that is humorous and heartening because of Sondheim’s incomparable lyrics.
After June escapes her mother’s clutches and Rose turns her attention to making Louise a star, it’s certain this show will not have a conventional happy ending. The intense, dangerous nature of Rose’s iron will is visceral as the curtain comes down on Act One after Ziemba belts out with spine-tingling gusto “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the illusory show biz anthem.
Like all good stage actresses, Ziemba is a team player. But she is also a star and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is rousing and unsettling and Ziemba leaves you begging for more at the intermission. But in Act Two, she has competition from the three actresses who play strippers in the riotous “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” the show stopper featuring the brassy Carly Sakolove, the cheeky Sarah Cline and local favorite Emily Soell, another woman of a certain age who plays the past-her-prime Electra with pitch-perfect comic timing and finesse. Soell also gives a scene-stealing performance as the secretary to a powerful theatrical producer.
Since it’s fairly likely that everyone in the audience has seen “Gypsy” before, the evening’s suspense is whether or not Ziemba can bring down the house (following in the formidable footsteps of Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly) with “Rose’s Turn,” the aptly timed “11 o’clock number” that expresses all of Rose’s yearnings, disappointments and unrelenting perseverance. Happily, it is more than worth the wait. It’s hard to imagine any actress delivering this cri de couer with more fury, frenzy and feeling. Rose may never be a genuine star, but Ziemba undeniably is.
“Gypsy” at Sharon Playhouse (through July 3)
49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT