Behind the scenes: “Gypsy” at Orcas Center


The musical “Gypsy” follows a young vaudeville actress who reinvents the art of burlesque dancing.

But the play is really about her mother, Madam Rose.

“Madam Rose is one of the most challenging roles written for a woman in musical theatre,” said Beth Baker, who is playing the part. “She is onstage for 14 out of 17 scenes, sings seven songs, and experiences a wide range of emotions. She is an incredible and unusual woman who embraces her life and its challenges head on, making a way for herself and her children during years when women didn’t do such things.”

Rehearsals have been intense, and Baker is giving it her all.

“This play is challenging in many ways and each and every rehearsal has been valuable,” she said. “As usual I would like to have more time, but the show must go on!”

“Gypsy” is based on the memoirs of Rose’s daughter, Louise (known as Gypsy Rose Lee) who rose to fame as a stripper. The play portrays her early years as a vaudeville actress with her sister, June, and later as a burlesque dancer. Madam Rose was the original stage mother, pushing her daughters to perform.

Orcas Center is presenting the popular Broadway musical at the end of April, featuring an all-local production with a huge cast of adults and children (72, not including the musicians and crew). Deborah Sparks is directing the play, with musical direction by Joe Babcock and choreography by Susan Babcock.

Grace McCune is portraying Louise, and the roles of a “young” June and Louise are being played by elementary students Paris Wilson and Ariel Vergan, high schooler Grace Thompson, and her 22-year-old sister, Hailey.

Susan says she and her husband’s dining room table is awash with music sheets, DVDs, and notebooks, as they collaborate on their first musical together.

“The fun thing about a musical is that you’re all like a big family at the end,” she said.

Susan has been teaching young actors from ages eight to late teens, and has tried to keep with the original choreography.

“That’s been the biggest challenge,” she said. “I tried to stay true to the choreography of Jerome Robbins, and it’s been hard to do that with non-trained dancers. But we’re doing it! We’re sticking close to it. I love to make kids move. Kids are brilliant. If you give them the tools, they can do anything.”

The children have a leg-up for grasping the numbers: they’ve all taken Susan’s Orcas Center Arts Education dance classes at the public school. For most of the young dancers, the rehearsals are one more activity on a full list of extracurricular interests.

But their enthusiasm never wanes.

“My favorite part is the costumes,” Aliza Diepenbrock said.

“And the wigs and hats,” added Vergan.

Director Sparks says the show is right on track.

“We’re all working hard, and we’ve had some great fun,” she said. “’Gypsy’ has 11 scenes and 11 different environments in the first act. That’s a lot for a community theatre to take on, which is why you really only see ‘Gypsy’ in larger theatres with the capacity to fly and rotate sets in and out. I chose to strip everything down – imply the environments and let the audience’s imagination do the rest. You really focus, this way, on the actors, the dances, the songs and music and Luke Pietsch, our little sign carrying boy scout, who lets the audience know where the scenes takes place.”

Sparks is confident the community will be entertained.

“I think the community will leave happily humming some of the tunes!” she said. “Many of the numbers are songs people have heard before, but maybe didn’t realize they were from the score for ‘Gypsy.’”

“Gypsy” performances

Thursday-Friday, April 22-23, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 24, 2 p.m. and 7:30 pm

Thursday-Friday, April 29-30, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 1, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $17, $13 (Orcas Center members), and $9 (students).