5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth, 292-ARTS, $17-$58 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. ends Sun., May 20
I'M GOING TO ASSUME we all know a little something of the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim musical about the vaudevillian beginnings of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and the grasping ministrations of her mother. It's Mama Rose, immortalized by Ethel Merman, who makes or breaks this affair, so let's cut to the chase.
Tony-winner Judy Kaye (Carlotta in Broadway's Phantom) is generous, engaging and, all right, maybe not as socko as you'd hope. She's too sympathetically spongy to come off like the hard-edged "pioneer woman without a frontier" that steamrolls hopeless paramour Herbie (Stephen Godwin, bruising nicely), and her climactic "Rose's Turn" doesn't punch you in the chest like the dukes-up aria it is. She gives a smart performance, certainly, one that understands a harridan's humanity, and her softness means we get less Merman-ish, perfectly lovely versions of lilting songs like "Small World," which is just fine by me. And by the end of Act 1 she's knocking off a marvelously desperate "Everything's Coming Up Roses" that reveals some snap you'd like to see earlier in the evening.
Most of the show needs to "Sing out, Louise!", come to think of it; director Mark Waldrop has shaped something pleasant that needs just one good kick in the pants. It's good that Waldrop appreciates the subtle edginess of Arthur Laurents' book, but he doesn't always energize it. This is musical theater at an all-time, chest-swelling high, and Waldrop keeps it more earthbound than necessary. Sloan Just's Louise, the future brash stripper, is a bit stiff, too, but, then, even the movie's Natalie Wood wasn't able to take the character's hard knocks and polish them into the necessary brass.
The score, of course, still gives us Styne in peak form and Sondheim doing his cheekiest Cole Porter ("You can sacrifice your sacro/Workin' in the back row"). And all of the supporting performers have charm, with Jason Gillman a slick, terrific Tulsa, the starry-eyed chorus boy who sets Louise swooning yet runs off with her sister June (feisty Jennifer Cody). His smiling rendition of "All I Need Is the Girl" is this production at its finest, bursting with sweet, unabashed joy.
THE LANGUAGE OF ANGELS
Theater Schmeater, 1500 Summit, 324-5801, $12 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. matinees Sun., May 13 and Sun., May 20 special Home Alive benefit performance Thurs., May 17 ends Sat., June 2
DIRECTOR SHEILA DANIELS gets a bit literal with the emotional distances of The Language of Angels. The air of memory and regret in Naomi Iizuka's play, which spends half of its terse running time using monologues to recall the disappearance of a teenage girl in a Southern small town, is dense enough to convince Daniels it's a sort of down-home Ingmar Bergman—people keep staring off into a haunted void and unloading their souls. Later scenes are supposed to reveal the repercussions of the incident on the participants' anguished adulthood, but everything is so drawlingly aloof we don't know who these folks are, let alone what's really going on (Iizuka, too, is carried away by her own stark flourishes). The actors pace and wander and speak to each other from across the stage, often so far apart it turns into a tennis match.
Give Daniels credit, though, for a rigorous, if mannered, honesty. I could've done without nudges from the ghostly vocal track, and I couldn't tell you why Julie Rawley, compelling as ever, is crooning Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?" with the wrong melody, but every cast member is encouraged to respond to the material with empathy (even as a few of them are munching hungrily on their twang). Joseph DeLorenzo is a standout as JB, a particularly guilty survivor with one foot in the past who has become the town's sheriff, and Clare Aronow, as the dead girl's pal, has a touchingly wounded radiance. In an evening too heavy by half, it would have been nice to see more of that light.