Surviving a stage mom

Posted: Thursday, January 18, 2001

There's something to be said for stage mothers.

They can drive people crazy and even turn off their own kids. But they can get things done.

"Gypsy" is the story of the mother of all stage mothers, "Mama" Rose Hovick. Originally a Broadway musical based on the true story of famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, this production opens Friday for a month-long run at Perseverance Theatre.

Karen Cross, who plays Mama Rose, read the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the work that "Gypsy" is based upon.


"It's amazing to me how much of the dialogue and direct quotes are from the book," Cross said. "The characters in the story are true, although the character Herbie is kind of an amalgam of a couple different men. And both the daughters did become very successful in their own right."

At once a likable and infuriating character, Rose relentlessly drives her daughters June and Louise across the country and up the wall. The girls grow up on the road. Their entire childhood - in the late 1920s and 1930s - is spent singing and dancing in lodge halls and second-rate theaters, living in cheap hotels from Seattle to Buffalo. They don't go to school, but they do get an education.

Leigh Miller, 10, plays Baby June, and she confessed that there's something to be said for the life Mama Rose gives her girls.

"I think it would be interesting because the kids would be pushed to do their best always," she said. "Like at home, I don't rehearse 'Gypsy' every day. But they have no break, especially if you never went to school. You would be really good, because it's your whole life."

Anita Maynard-Losh directs the musical, and Miller was cast early as Baby June. Maynard-Losh heard her sing in "King Island Christmas" and knew she wanted her - though she didn't figure on getting a leading man in the bargain. In a real-life twist on "Gypsy's" theme, Miller pulled her father Glenn into show business.


"They wanted my daughter for that role," Glenn Miller said. "So I auditioned. I've been a season ticket holder for 17 years, and I've always been really interested in theater. But I haven't done any theater before."

Miller said he has a couple of things going for him in his stage debut as Herbie, a candy salesman smitten with Mama Rose. As an athlete, he knows how to focus and how to be a team player. He has three daughters, and said he can relate to the character Herbie.

"I think the character Herbie is kind of like me, so I'm kind of playing myself," he said. "It's easier in your first role to have a character with similar makeup."

He understands Herbie's attraction to Rose. She's a con artist and a scammer, but she's bubbly and fun-loving as well.

"He finds her exciting, and people don't always think that much about the long-term implications of being with someone like that," he said. "He seems to think he can change her."

Cross said playing Mama Rose in "Gypsy" will be her swan song in Juneau. She's leaving after the show wraps up next month. Cross sings most of the songs and is onstage for 14 of the show's 17 scenes. She said this is the most challenging role she's ever done.

"Not only is it comedic, it's also serious drama as well," she said. "The character herself is an extreme person, and very intense in every respect. You can never let up with this character, there are no breaks."

Cross is also a parent and, like Miller, her daughters are also performers. She said she was not a stage mother, but admits there is a bit of Mama Rose in every mother.

"Not to that psychotic extreme, but if you go to a softball game, and look on the sidelines, that's Mama Rose," she said. "There are all kinds of variations of stage mothers when it comes to their kids. I worked pretty hard myself as a mom to make sure I had something in my life so I wasn't trying to live through my children."

Mama Rose wants the best for her girls, but her efforts aren't altruistic. She wants to live through their success.

"She thinks her children are an extension of her," Cross said. "It isn't until the end that she reflects on herself at all."

Mama Rose finds that her daughters' success isn't quite what she expected. But she has been effective. The real-life daughters, June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee, had successful careers in show business. Havoc was a marathon dancer and an award-winning actress, and she was initiated into the American Theatre Hall of Fame this year. And Gypsy Rose became a celebrity beyond burlesque.

Leigh Miller and Kai Christian play the young girls. Halfway through the first act they transform into young teen-agers. Julia Cohen plays June and Summer Koester is her sister Louise, the girl who eventually takes the stage name Gypsy Rose. Cross said it's a demanding role for Koester, who not only ages 15 years on stage, but also transforms from shy back-up singer to charismatic star.

Louise's transformation includes a burlesque strip scene, but it's G-rated.

"This is not a raunchy show," said director Maynard-Losh. "No one wears less than you'd see on a beach. There's an innocence about those days - even the gritty times are so much more innocent than today."

Maynard-Losh has brought her 4-year-old daughter to rehearsals so often she's memorized the songs. "Gypsy" features a five-piece band, and the music by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne includes well-known songs such as "Let Me Entertain You" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

"Gypsy" opens at 8 p.m. Friday. Regular shows are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 6 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 18.

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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