Through Sunday, Nov. 19
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh

It’s an awkward time for a revival of Gypsy, biggest of the big-time classic Broadway musicals. After the recent death of Hugh Hefner, our culture has been re-reexamining the social politics of the skin trade, including sex work, pornography, and erotic dancing, the famous occupation of the musical’s subject: Louise Hovick, better known to the world as Gypsy Rose Lee. A seemingly endless tide of sexual harassment allegations against public figures have complicated those deliberations even further.

Arthur Laurents’s backstage script skirts these issues during the first act as it relates the determined drive of Louise’s mother, Madame Rose (a brassy Christine Sherrill), to make her first daughter, Baby June (Tanisha Moore), a 1920s vaudeville star. Yes, modern eyes easily discern the child abuse and neglect in this showbiz family’s self-imposed poverty while they look for their big break. Still, when the Orpheum Circuit finally books them, all is golden.

Until, that is, Madame Rose’s performing children start growing up. When her lover and agent, good-guy Herbie (an ingratiating Martin Moran) says June and her awkward sister, Louise (Mary Mattison), are becoming young women, Rose snaps, “They’re not—and they never will be.” After recklessly driving June and her fellow performers away, Rose transfers her fixation onto a reluctant Louise, putting an already losing act through increasingly desperate permutations until they’re booked at a Wichita burlesque house.

Then the scene comes where the headlining stripper can’t perform after getting busted for solicitation. Rose volunteers Louise for the job. And the audience in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium goes still. Under Eric Woodall’s direction in this NC Theatre production, Louise freezes as Rose negotiates the gig and then hurriedly instructs her how to perform. Both women seem to be in shock, on some form of autopilot.

In the next scene, a young woman stands awkwardly, alone on stage, in a beautiful blue gown and white gloves. She stiffly walks back and forth, revulsion in her face as she looks at her audience. It’s a disastrous performance, intentionally so—a young woman’s unwilling first strip. And we, in the audience, are complicit in it.

Later, Louise, who changes her name to Gypsy Rose, learns to find the work personally empowering and economically enriching. But getting there has meant crossing borders no woman should have had to. This thought-provoking production doesn’t let its characters or its audience off the hook when that happens. That needs to happen more, in more places, in our culture.