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Stripped of Spirit

She's the Medea of all stage mothers, the most frightening diva of the American musical theater. That would be Mama Rose, of course, the stardom-fixated monster at the center of Gypsy. Since 1959 audiences have clung to her poisonous apron strings, happily singing along. Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, and Tyne Daly all used Mama Rose to claw their way to Broadway success. Now Jan McArt, self-proclaimed "first lady of South Florida musical theater," embraces the delectable role, with mixed results, at her own Royal Palm Dinner Theatre.

Vanity productions notwithstanding, it's unsettling (and perhaps appropriate) that McArt, proprietress/actress/producer at the venerable but fading Boca Raton theater complex, should choose to stage Gypsy this winter. McArt won critical acclaim nearly two decades ago when she starred in the Royal Palm's last production of the durable Broadway hit. Now the musical -- itself a celebration of vaudeville's last hurrah -- resurfaces as a last-minute substitution for Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's lesser-known Lady in the Dark.

The theater had originally scheduled that show but pulled it in favor of the more familiar Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim fare just as the Royal Palm changed its status from commercial theater to not-for-profit late last year in an effort to avoid certain death. Think things aren't desperate? Just check out the introductory patter before the curtain rises (a cast member from the holiday show upstairs in the Rooftop Cabaret sings "White Christmas" in Yiddish) and tell me the Royal Palm isn't grasping for ideas.

In this venue Gypsy comes off like a plea to save the dinner-theater format. The postprandial tradition, like the burlesque houses in which Mama Rose finds her family act when she reaches the proverbial end of the line, has indeed seen better days. On the Royal Palm stage, a bite-size theater-in-the-round with difficult sight lines, the musical unfolds, or rather unravels, without the benefit of anything approaching the elan of the Jerome Robbins choreography for which it is famous, the acting skills necessary to illuminate its convoluted main character, or the high spirits that propelled this gem to its permanent place in the Broadway canon.

And with long-time Royal Palm director Bob Bogdanoff at the helm, there's no real surprise in the familiar story about the ugly-duckling sister of vaudeville star Baby June who grew up to become stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Nor is there anything close to the smart direction that can turn this musical into a provocative fable about the quintessentially American yearning for fame, the contradictory drives of motherhood, and the darker undercurrents that accompany both these phenomena.

Indeed the show is lethargic where it should be snappy, depressing where it should uplift. Its child actors are not particularly adorable, its adults not particularly talented. In addition the Royal Palm lacks live music. But in McArt, a veteran performer with some Broadway experience from the '60s, the production has a leading lady whose voice is still in good form, though reportedly diminished from its earlier power. Mama Rose is supposed to be a dynamic survivor, a dangerous life force in a morality tale in which show biz is a metaphor for life. Here, however, the story and its star merely get put through their paces and nothing more.

Although all the Royal Palm leads have appealing voices, there is not a dancer to speak of in the cast and for that matter only a handful of actors. A notable exception is the engaging Gia Bradley-Cheda, who does possess all the talents necessary for a musical-theater role as well as the charisma to portray the famous burlesque queen. (Also well cast is Leigh Bennett as the inimitable Mazeppa, the stripper whose gimmick is a trumpet. This actress realizes she has one of the best bit parts Broadway has to offer and exploits all its possibilities with verve.)

The result? Well, the Royal Palm production isn't the only show in which the costumes -- which range in design from well appointed to demonically inspired -- upstage the human elements on stage, but it's the first one I've seen in which the clothes seem larger than life while the actors seem as remote and attenuated as figures on a TV screen. Make that a very fuzzy TV screen. The Bette Midler/Peter Riegert 1993 television production of Gypsy is an extremely powerful rendition of the star vehicle. Scary, too. When Midler's Rose casually remarks to her daughter, "You know, you need a little more mascara on your left eye," the rest of us want to hide under the bed as though the Wicked Witch of the West had suddenly appeared.

At the Royal Palm, the prevailing personality is McArt. She rules the production with an evenhanded professionalism you can't complain about. Alas, neither can you warm up to it. Despite McArt's innate elegance, her acting here is bereft of even one spontaneous moment. Another issue is her advancing age. (In theater circles she's rumored to be in her seventies.) While she isn't quite at the point where you worry she's going to break a hip as she tentatively shimmies around, neither is she someone who can hold our attention for two hours plus. I'm not suggesting it's time for McArt to hang up her star mantle (her voice still shines), but the more intricate choreographic demands of sophisticated musical theater are clearly now beyond her.

Yet even mediocre production values can't undermine the genius of Gypsy's score. When McArt sings "Goodbye to blueberry pie," the haunting refrain from "Some People," the song evokes chills at the thought that in 1959 Broadway offered us a woman who wanted more than a clean kitchen and a reliable husband. (In fact, Arthur Laurents' book imagines a world that's more psychologically complicated than any Broadway musical from the last two decades.) This lone collaboration between Styne and Sondheim, each of whom would go on to compose entirely disparate bodies of work, is one of the last musicals to create a coherent universe with its songs alone.

From gentle ballads ("Little Lamb," sung in a heartfelt turn by Bradley-Cheda) and novelty songs ("Mr. Goldstone, I Love You," in which Mama Rose delivers the last word on egg rolls) to its showcase, reality-defying anthem ("Everything's Coming Up Roses"), there's not a clunker among them. Given the likable voices at the Royal Palm, it's too bad the production falls so far from the grace notes of the score. Unfortunately, buying the cast album is not an option.

Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Bob Bogdanoff. Starring Jan McArt, Jay Stuart, Gia Bradley-Cheda, Paige Rosenblum, Maggie Peterson, Priscilla Behne, Leigh Bennett, and Joe Ceriello. Through February 28. Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, 303 SE Mizner Blvd, Boca Raton, 800-841-6765.

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Robin Dougherty

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