By Clark Groome

When “Gypsy” first appeared on the scene in 1959, it was widely acclaimed as an almost perfect musical. Subsequent Broadway productions — featuring Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone in the monster role of Mama Rose originally performed by Ethel Merman — confirmed that initial reaction. The Arden Theatre Company is mounting a fine if at time puzzling “Gypsy” through June 25.

“Gypsy” is not, of course, a musical comedy in the classic sense, although a lot of it is very funny. Author Arthur Laurents calls it a “musical play.”

It tells the story of Rose, the quintessential stage mother who, by her drive and unrealistic expectations, loses three husbands, a devoted boyfriend and at least one of her two daughters, Baby June (June Havoc) and Louise (Gypsy Rose Lee).

It is almost tragic in its scope and as told by author Laurents, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, there isn’t an ounce of fat in the show.

Styne’s glorious score (“Let Me Entertain You,” “Small World,” “All I Need Is the Girl,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and “Together,” to name a few), is used to advance the story, not to illustrate it, as was often the case in other musicals of its period, general known as The Golden Age of the American Musical.

On top of that, the songs are good — really good — and the show never wants for theatrical impact.

That’s as it should be because “Gypsy” is a theater story, a true backstage bio without any apologies. Only one song, the show-stopping “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,”  was there for its entertainment value. Nevertheless, it too — by explaining to Louise (not yet a stripper) how to be successful in burlesque — advanced the plot.

The Arden production, after a strange inclusion of the actors during the overture, is quite strong. Leading the way is Mary Martello’s Mama Rose. The demands of the role have been described as the King Lear of the musical theater. Rose is a powerful and driven mother whose desire for her daughter to become a star is really a desire for her own success. Martello is relentless in her demands on her kids and clearly baffled by the rejection she often faces from the men and children in her life.

She is ably supported by Anthony Heald’s Herbie, the adoring boy friend who ultimately flees Rose’s unrealistic, controlling nature.

Malik Akil is a terrific Tulsa, whose “All I Need is the Girl” presages the collapse of so many of Mama Rose’s dreams after he leaves her troupe and marries “Baby” June. Caroline Dooner’s Louise is a butterfly waiting for the metamorphosis that turns her into the famously successful Gypsy Rose Lee.

The rest of the ensemble acts,  sings and dances impressively. And then there’s Chowsie, Rose’s dog, played to perfection by the director’s pooch, Andy Nolen. The three strippers who stop the show in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” are Joilet F. Harris, Monica Horan and Meghan Strange.

The good designers are James Kronzer (sets), Thom Weaver (lighting), Richard St, Clair (costumes), Jorge Cousineau (video and sound) and Jenn Rose (choreography). Musical Director Ryan Touhey conducts the excellent orchestra.

“Gypsy” is great theater, as great today as when it opened almost 60 years ago. There may be no such thing as a perfect musical, but “Gypsy,” which so effectively combines story, music and dance, is just about as close as it gets.

The repeating song that Mama Rose’s act uses from their time as little kids to grownups who must still pretend to be pre-pubescent is “Let Me Entertain You.” The Arden’s “Gypsy” does that and so much more.

For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org

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