Broadway’s Kathy Fitzgerald Returns to Phoenix in Gypsy

When one writes of her here, she is "Broadway's Kathy Fitzgerald." In New York, for which she left us more than a decade ago, she is one among a few: a character actress who's always in demand; who's appeared in Broadway shows like Wicked, 9 to 5, and in the original company of a little thing called The Producers (she was in the film version, too).

Regardless of her provenance, she is a powerhouse, igniting both musical comedy and straight drama. Lately, on her former stomping ground, she is the force behind Phoenix Theatre's current production of Gypsy, in which she plays Mama Rose. From the moment she makes her entrance from the back of the house, carrying a Chihuahua and rasping a holler at her kids, Fitzgerald takes this theater archetype — a woman whose made-up life was further rewritten in stories told by her daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee — and makes her entirely real. And so, therefore, is this umpteenth telling of the backstage life of the world's most famous stripper and her manic mom who longs for stardom.

Michael Barnard's energetic direction and Molly Lajoie's neatly vaudevillian choreography benefit a stunning cast — a veritable Who's Who of local stage talent: Johanna Carlisle (who, as the trumpet-playing stripper, Mazeppa, comes as close as anyone to briefly stealing the spotlight from Fitzgerald), Andi Watson, Lisa Fogel, Gene Ganssle, and Mike Lawler among them. So impressive is this company's cast that local theater treasure John Sankovich is listed in the credits as "Understudy." (I want selfishly to believe that he — an actor who can play anything — is understudying not for Mr. Goldstone or Pops, but for Mama Rose.)

Among the various Junes and Louises, Riley Glick and Jenny Hintze are standouts. When Hintze takes the stage as the suddenly grown-up Gypsy, her transformation from gawky teen to burlesque star is dazzling. And there's D. Scott Withers, who has done the impossible: He's given some real depth to Herbie, musical theater's most famously underwritten role (perhaps because Herbie is an apocryphal character that replaces the real-life Rose's many lesbian lovers).

These fine performers provide satisfying distraction, but then Fitzgerald swallows our attention with a single hip thrust or a bellow of that big, booming voice, and we remember why we're there: to watch her do what she's always done so well. Even if she weren't our hometown gal made good and a real-life Broadway star, it would be impossible not to be knocked over by Kathy Fitzgerald's magnificent Mama Rose.