Years after setting her sights on playing stage mom Rose in the musical 'Gypsy,' actress Robyn O’Neill gets her time to shine. (Photo by Jay Paul)
The musical is called Gypsy, but the real star is Rose, the archetypal stage mother hell-bent on achieving stardom for her daughters (one of whom gains fame as burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee).
It’s a role that Robyn O’Neill has had her eyes on for years. “There’s a million roles for ingénues, but when you get to be 40-plus, there are not as many, and this one is the best. I’m pretty much thrilled out of my mind that I’m getting to do it.” she says. "It’s a perfect marriage of book and music and lyrics. You could even take the music out and it’s still a good play, because all of the characters have so much going on."
During the 2003 Broadway revival with Bernadette Peters as Rose — "my absolute favorite," O'Neill says —director Chase Kniffen and O'Neill were working on a production of Annie Get Your Gun at Barksdale Theatre. On a whim, they got in the car and drove up to New York to see it.
"We just wept – it was so wonderful," says O'Neill, winner of a Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts (theater) in 2005. "I loved her take on it. Mama Rose tends to be this big, loud-mouthed, ballsy woman who pushes her way through everything. When Bernadette Peters did it, there was something kind of sexy and a little more subtlety in her performance. ... She redefined the role for me."
Back in Richmond, O'Neill told Bruce Miller, then artistic director for Barksdale (now Virginia Repertory Theatre's artistic director) she was dying to play the role.
"Bruce said, 'OK in 10 or 15 years when you’re ready,' " Kniffen recalls. Now, the time has come. "We picked it with Robyn in mind. It’s been on our radar for 10 or 15 years. Robyn is so ready to do it now. She has the life experience, she’s the right age and she really gets the character in a way that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been the case. I’m fortunate that Bruce thought I was the right person to direct it."
Kniffen has his own history with the show, having appeared in the last professional Richmond production of Gypsy at TheatreVirginia in 1997 at age 12. Another connection with that production is Sue Griffin, who had been TheatreVirginia's costume designer and is now working on Gypsy as Virginia Rep's costume director.
The Virginia Rep production also stars Christie Jackson as Gypsy. Nov. 20 through Jan. 10. $36 to $60. 282-2620 or va-rep.org.