Together Again

Scott Ripley (Herbie), Leslie Uggams (Rose) and Amandina Altomare (Louise) star in "Gypsy" through July 20 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Tickets and information at crt.uconn.edu (Gerry Goodstein, Connecticut Repertory Theatre / July 9, 2014)

The show: "Gypsy" at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs.

What makes it special?: Leslie Uggams stars in the show, making her the first African American actress to take on the iconic role in an Equity production.

First impressions: In the context of summer stock productions when rehearsal periods are extremely short and perfection in casting is occasional at best, Connecticut Repertory Theatre's hot-weather run of the classic musical Gypsy" has its pleasures as a star vehicle for Leslie Uggams and as a revisit to one of the great showbiz musicals.

Though well beyond the right age for the role (the stage is far more forgiving than film) and vocally challenged at moments, Uggams, age 71, nevertheless brings her dramatic chops to key scenes, as well as charm, presence, warmth and wide-eyed madness to the role. Like vaudeville itself, which the show celebrates with a big heart and a hard eye, some acts are OK, some are duds but then there's that flash of brilliance that makes you a believer, if only for a moment.

What's it about?: It's the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, and how she became the popular stripper-entertainer of her day. But the musical doesn't focus on her but rather her indomitable stage mother Rose Hovak who desperately tried to make vaudeville stars of her daughters, in the '20s and '30s, first with June and then Louise before the latter blossomed on her own as the famous star of burlesque.

But Mama Rose is the quintessential stage mother, and you said "warmth." Though the character is often an appalling and delusional force of nature, Uggams finds many points in the story that shows her love of her daughters and the man who loves her. Uggams' lilting, honeyed voice brings exceptional warmth to the gentler songs such as "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away from Me."

But is this Rose too sweet?: At first I thought the performance was soft with Rose's obsession lacking energy and bite. But as the story went on I felt that eager-to-please smile increasingly frightening to behold, especially when it suddenly disappears when fighting with her father (Michael James Leslie), or her own demons.

And '"Rose's Turn?": Though Uggams is known by many for her singing, she has deep dramatic skills, too. (Her performance in August Wilson's "King Hedley II" was a revelation to me and she was terrific and heartbreaking in "The Old Settler," too., in Hartford.) So the actress certainly knows how to dig deep. There are great flashes of pain, fear and madness in this nervous-breakdown of a number. But its sustainability is a challenge and dampens the accumulative effect of what should be a shattering climax.

But the greatness of the script and the human story of the show has a way of drawing you in despite imperfections in a production, staged by Vincent J. Cardinal. Indeed, one of the highlights of the show was the song by the two long-suffering children of Rose, "If Momma Was Married," and Alanna Saunders as June and Amandina Altomare as Louise nailed it. Scott Ripley is solid and in fine voice as the devoted agent Herbie. Luke Hamilton makes the most of his big dance number and the trio of strippers (Mackenzie Leigh Friedmann, Cassandra Dupler and Ariana Shore) are great fun.

And the rest of the production?: Some rough parts for sure but I suspect by the end of the run many of these will have be smoothed out.

Who will like it?: Fans of Uggams, vaudeville and burlesque.

Who won't?: Those looking for the next great "Gypsy."

For the kids?: The older ones will definitely relate to the theme of possessive parents who can't let go.

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Star power helps an uneven summer stock "Gypsy"

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Ah, the if-onlys in show business. The musical's writer Arthur Laurents was keen on Uggams doing the role 10 years ago but that casting never materialized. A decade can be an eternity in casting.

The basics: "Gypsy'' will play the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs through July 20. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $10 to $43. Information: 860-486-2113 and www.crt.uconn/edu.

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Editor's Note: An earlier version was changed that contained the wrong name of a cast member and the titles of the two songs the daughters sing have been corrected,