‘Gypsy’ opens at Timber Lake Playhouse.

Timber Lake Playhouse opened its 55th summer season with “Gypsy” Thursday evening.  The theatre in the boonies seems to be bigger and better every year.  The lineup following “Gypsy” includes “Having Our Say,” “Rock of Ages,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Titanic” and “Gaslight.”

“Gypsy” is well remembered as a 1959 collaboration of Jule Styne music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics with book by Arthur Laurents.  The results, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to ever-lasting classic American songs including “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Let Me Entertain You.”  To round out the original production was director Jerome Robbins.

The story was loosely based on the memoirs, “Gypsy Rose Lee,” wherein the life and times of the striptease artist were spiced with seemingly everything from the drama of her relentless stage mother to raucous behavior, then inevitably raising the performance standard from low life to artistic excellence.  At the same time, the story exposes an era when Vaudeville faded as popular theatre entertainment.

The very memory of “Gypsy” may be permanently embedded in our collective consciousness with the image of iconic Ethel Merman as Rose in the original Broadway version.  Her buxom image and brash delivery earned her a belting style of singing that became her signature edge on stage and off.

Artistic Director James Beaudry of TLP invited guest artist Saundra Santiago for the role of mother Rose.  He notes that she belts and blows strongly as a singer, and also exceeds all expectations in acting ability.  Indeed, she absorbs the full-bodied character masterfully to all audience members, whether or not old enough to remember Merman of the original show.

It comes as no surprise that Santiago would fill the bill with a long list of work that includes Broadway, Off Broadway, television’s soap opera Guiding Light, “Miami Vice” and “The Sopranos,” to name just a few.

Beaudry also said that in the original “Gypsy,” director Jerome Robbins used the lighting technique of the strobe to indicate the passage of time when child dancers shuffling off the Buffalo matured into teenagers shuffling off the Buffalo.  It turns out to be one of the most magical and effective scenes in the first act, thanks to TLP lighting designer Riley Wood.

As Rose’s significant other, John B. Boss as Herbie makes his TLP debut to add vocal strength opposite Santiago.  Most moving is their blend of togetherness in songs “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.”  Boss is soundly comfortable on stage and most recently performed in Big League National Tour of Mel Brooks, The Producers” and as Sir Walter in the musical version of “Jane Austen’s Persuasion, The Musical” in Scotland.

As Rose’s Baby June, Avery Findlay of Savannah is hysterical with a nearly natural instinct to portray a satire of squeaks, splits and mini-screams – just like any stage mother would be proud to present.  Rose’s Young Louise, by Nikki Honchell of Mt. Carroll, on the other hand, contrasts correctly as the shy one who later blooms.

Standard procedure for TLP is that it draws upon extraordinary talents that are able to sing, dance, and do it all. Olivia Kaufmann as Louise and Caroline Kasay as Dainty June are among them, as well as Liam Johnson as Tulsa in an impressive performance of “All I Need Is The Girl,” choreography by Zachary Gray.

It’s a large cast, large show and large music led by Andrew Milliken upstage to fill out the action.

Must see musical “Gypsy” continues for 12 more performances through Sunday, June 12 including five 2 p.m. matinees.  Tuesday through Saturday evening shows at 7:30 p.m., (No evenings August 5 and 12). The boonies theatre is a hop, skip and a jump to 8215 Black Oak Road, Mount Carroll. Call the box office at (815) 244-2035 or boxoffice@timberlakeplayhouse.org for tickets, group rates and more information.