Many people consider 1959’s Gypsy to be the quintessential representation of the “golden age” of Broadway musicals (mid-1940s to mid-1960s), characterized by traditional “book” musicals with tightly scripted plots and complex characters. The show’s sterling pedigree includes Jule Styne’s memorable music, Stephen Sondheim’s clever lyrics, and Arthur Laurents’ nuanced script.

From its starring role of an obsessed stage mother and many juicy featured parts to its beautifully crafted plot-centric songs and a telling portrait of America’s dying vaudeville era, Gypsy is a challenge for any theatre to bring off. So many current shows rely on highly amplified power ballads, eye-popping technical displays, and material based on popular films and music that some audience members might see Gypsy as old-fashioned.

North Carolina Theatre‘s production sets out to counter that notion with a two-pronged re-envisioning: a more down-to-earth approach to the lead character and some intriguing non-traditional casting. Both choices bring fresh angles to a show that, after nearly 60 years, is open for new approaches.

The role of Mama Rose, played over the decades by such outsized personalities as Ethel Merman, Tyne Daly, and Patti Lupone, is usually interpreted with crazed intensity as Rose lives out her failed dreams through her children. That scary single-mindedness and dragon-lady persona allows for impressive star turns that sometimes can overdo the scenery chewing.

Director Eric Woodall and his Rose, Christine Sherrill, go for a more realistic portrait of a vulnerable woman whose missed chances make her live vicariously through her daughters’ careers. Sherrill is younger and more traditionally beautiful than many who take on the part, adding a further level of believability to the romance with her newly-acquired agent, Herbie.

At Tuesday’s opening, Sherrill belted out the big numbers, such as “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn,” and displayed fine comic instincts in songs such as “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and “Together Wherever We Go.” She didn’t always have full control of her voice, with a number of words getting swallowed, some lyrical lines taking on a tremulous flutter, and often times sounding breathless. It’s likely a few more performances will allow her to settle into this killer role.

Sherrill’s most impressive moments were her most dramatic. When Rose learns that her vaudeville act’s performers have deserted, Sherrill’s silent stare into the void riveted as the hurt and anger flashed through her eyes. She was equally gripping when Rose realizes it’s all over with Herbie and was moving as Rose tries to grasp at any remaining relationship with her neglected daughter, Louise. At other times, Sherrill fell back on nervous pacing and ringing of hands that limited her range of expression. Those familiar with large-scale portrayals of Rose may miss such a stage-filling intensity, but Sherrill and Woodall’s version gives the character a realism that may draw in those not steeped in established tradition.

Martin Moran filled Herbie with great warmth and depth, an audience favorite for his projection of Herbie’s long-suffering willingness to go along with Rose’s schemes and empty promises of settling down. Mary Mattison’s Louise made a finely judged transition from shy, overlooked daughter to self-confident young woman, her transformation into the stunning stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was a show highlight. Ellen Mackenzie Pierce gave Baby Louise appropriate low self esteem as Rose ignored her for the more talented June.

North Carolina Theatre deserves credit for continuing to cast African American performers in non-traditional roles, a boon for performers and audiences alike. Tanisha Moore’s adult June made it plain that underneath all the cutesy schtick Rose made her daughter endure, there was a burning desire to be her own person. Moore’s duet with Mattison in “If Momma Was Married” was another show highlight. Skyla I’Lece Woodard’s Baby June had all the right eager-to-please energy, complete with a hilarious squeak that ended each high kick.

Sidney DuPont’s Tulsa, the young man in Rose’s troupe determined to make it as dancer, made his big number, “All I Need Is the Girl,” brightly appealing with a jazzy approach to the choreography. Amma Osei’s stripper Mazeppa stopped the show with her “bump it with a trumpet” section in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (which also featured J. Elaine Marcos as wise-cracking Tessie Tura and Lynda Clark as world-weary Electra).

The atmospheric sets from Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the period costumes from Music Theatre Wichita (along with a handful of additional sources) are shown off beautifully by Samuel Rushen’s colorful lighting. Music director Laura Bergquist conducted the 22-piece orchestra with verve. Michael Mindlin’s choreography was limited by the abilities of the cast, making the “bad” aspects of the failing vaudeville troupe’s dancing more real that theatrical.

Director Woodall has added some lovely touches, such as the “behind the curtain” look at the show’s preparations during the overture and some innovative moves for Rose during the finale. The show moves along at a snappy pace, although in several cases some emotional layers are passed over, including in Louise’s “Little Lamb” and “If Mama Was Married,” both lacking an underlying sadness and regret that makes those songs so involving.

Nevertheless, Gypsy is no easy task to mount, what with numerous scene changes, multiple costumes, and traffic control for 34 performers. North Carolina Theatre’s production has enough of what it takes to make it recommended for most musical fans eager to see this rarely produced show.

Gypsy continues through Sunday, November 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.