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Marriott brings something new to ‘Gypsy’: a Mama Rose we can relate to

Lucia Spina’s performance can feel shockingly down to earth for a stage mother whose delusions of grandeur are her one constant.

Folks, I have some bad news: Mama Rose is a relatable millennial queen. Here are the facts. Even though she’ss always broke, she doesn’t want a day job; she’s not interested in marriage, only vibes; she’s obsessed with fame at all costs (oh boy, what she would have done with TikTok), and she is in a deep, unshakable thrall to hustle culture. In other words, Mama Rose is pretty much your basic “gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss” nightmare. Swap her reliance on dreams for a love of astrology, and we’d be fully cooked. Against our better judgment, we stan.

“Relatable” isn’t a word you often hear attached to Rose, the centrifugal figure in “Gypsy.” now playing at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre. As she pushes her young daughters June and Louise towards an uncertain future in the dying world of ’20s and ’30s American vaudeville, words like “mythic”and “monumental” come to mind. Rose isn’t relatable, usually — she’s elemental. Watching her is like watching the moon drag the ocean tides up and down the beach twice a day —- whether they like it or not.

But in the hands of actress Lucia Spina, “relatable” is the word that keeps coming to mind, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Granted, Spina’s singing isn’t relatable; it’s awe-inspiring. But until she truly blows the roof off the joint with her rendition of Rose’s 11 o’clock showstopper-cum-nervous-breakdown, “Rose’s Turn,” Spina’s performance can feel shockingly down to earth for a woman whose delusions of grandeur are her one constant.

This Rose isn’t winning any Mother of the Year awards; she’s pushy and blinkered and driving her family nuts — but she’s also goofy and corny and kind of sweet. In other words, she’s a mom. While Spina’s performance lacks that desperate edge that motivates Rose’s worst impulses (and eventually cuts her to ribbons), there’s something equally troubling about watching this woman in action and thinking, “I get it.” Which is more damning? Seeing yourself in Rose, or seeing her for what she really is?

Based on a memoir from mid-century burlesque superstar Gypsy Rose Lee, “Gypsy” is one of the great American musicals, full stop. With music by Jule Styne, lyrics from a young Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents (re-teaming with Sondheim after “West Side Story”), “Gypsy” turns the slow extinction of vaudeville into Sisyphean netherworld full of ghosts who don’t know they’re already dead. Styne’s score marries vaudeville pizzazz and showbiz swoon with the violent throes of an exorcism. And to set the mood, director Amanda Dehnert and scenic designer Collette Pollard begin this production with something almost like a seance, a temporary resurrection that sees a fallen marquee reassembling itself into a venue that’s still barely more alive than dead.

From there, “Gypsy” dives into Lee’s early years, when she went by Louise (Milla Liss) and served as second banana to her sister June (Elin Joy Seiler) in their mother’s godawful, low-rent “family” act. With Rose’s boyfriend-slash-agent Herbie (Nathaniel Stampley, a bit more stoic than pushover) in tow, the gang embarks on a years-long, country-wide jaunt through every dingy hole and dive that will have them.

And once the girls are older — now played by Lauren Maria Medina (Louise) and Tori Heinlein (June), both wonderful — the act doesn’t get any better. In fact, it kinda gets worse. It takes June finally running off with a young performer named Tulsa (J’Kobe Wallace in a standout performance) and an ill-fated gig at a burlesque show for Louise to discover her superpower as the world’s greatest (and funniest) stripper.

This production’s highlight might just be when Louise is given an impromptu business lesson from three burned-out burlesque dancers (played by Emily Rohm, Leeanna Rubin, and Sawyer Smith) who bring down the house with their gung-ho rendition of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

But even that number suffers from the one element — one might call it a gimmick — that the show can’t quite overcome: the demands of Marriott Theatre’s in-the-round seating. Mama Rose, in particular, was built for a proscenium. Her numbers should feel like a head-on collision with the audience, not a fender-bender glimpsed through snarled rows of traffic. Maybe it’s time the Marriott considered sending that setup to the same place vaudeville went: history.