Leslie Uggams playing the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy is significant for two reasons.
Firstly, Leslie Uggams is an African American actress. This shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given the buzz of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s current production of Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, it is. Billed as a “mixed race” rendition, claiming “no African American actress had ever starred as Rose in an Equity production,” this show’s marketing flaunts its diverse cast even as it clarifies that Uggams got the part solely because of her legendary talent. Publicity gambit or no, it becomes obvious upon seeing this venerable actress onstage — for ten nights only! — that she desperately wanted to give it a shot.
And why not? Uggams throws herself into this formidable part as capably as she can, and a nonwhite Mama Rose suddenly makes all the sense in the world. Audiences members for whom a person’s skin color is distracting will accept that Rose, whose touring Vaudeville act recruits stray tap-dancing children, doesn’t have to be a specific ethnicity. Her daughters don’t even necessarily have to be the same race, as they could just as easily be adopted in this story of gypsies and chased dreams. As American audiences are slowly but surely learning, this is proof that even in period plays, characters that aren’t explicitly ethnic can easily be portrayed by nonwhite actors.
The second reason Uggams as Rose is significant is that she was born in 1943, which makes her 71 years old. By no means does an actor’s age have to match their character’s, and there’s surely a wide window for Mama Rose, that notorious firebrand of a stage mother. But it’s one of the most physically and vocally demanding roles in the American musical theater canon. Playing it requires the kind of gusto and stamina not usually reserved for actors over 70. Vincent J. Cardinal, artistic director of CRT, called this show “the King Lear of musical theater,” a description that becomes painfully accurate when Uggams totters onto the stage, as frail and scattered as Shakespeare’s elderly king.
Uggams’ haphazard performance, unfortunately, is emblematic of a production that suffers little direction and overwrought design. Like a train careening just barely within the tracks, Scott Ripley as Herbie spends his performance visibly on edge about whether Miss Uggams will find her way to her next line. Amandina Altomare gives the downtrodden Louise as much subtlety as a cartoon Disney princess, and any flashes of promise among the large ensemble are squashed under either Cardinal’s lack of comic pacing or some unnecessarily large set piece.
But there are moments in act two when it becomes apparent that under different circumstances, Leslie Uggams could shine in a multi-racial Gypsy. When Herbie leaves her, when Louise rejects her, and yes, during the explosively rueful “Rose’s Turn,” there are glimmers of a truly thunderous performance. Twenty years younger and supported by more cohesive direction, she could have made headlines as an example of color-blind casting done wonderfully right. If nothing else, it’s proof that discriminatory casting is preventing great actors from seizing great roles in the way Miss Uggams is trying to seize Mama Rose.