Mama Rose had a fever of 102.
But there she was, in the theater, talking about the role of a lifetime that came along so early in her lifetime.
Where else would you expect to find the stage mother to top all stage mothers, fever or no fever?
Sarah Liddy is just weeks into her 17th year, a junior at Pelham Memorial High School, playing an Everest of a role: Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”
Last year, she was the title character in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a woman who was “drowsy” back when “drowsy” meant drunk.
The year before, as a freshman, she played Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, with the coveted song, “Far from the Home I Love,” in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
All that, though, doesn’t change the fact that the kid was in the theater, burning up.
She spoke in a soft rasp, her face flushed, her hair matted with perspiration.
“It’s a lot of lines to memorize,” she said with a soft laugh. “I can tell you that. I can’t believe I’m playing her.”
The role has been played on Broadway by titans of the form: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. It requires an actress who can sing, who can bulldoze and who, in the 11 o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn,” can have a nervous breakdown before our eyes.
It requires an actress not often found in high school.
“I love ‘Rose’s Turn,'” Liddy said softly. “Having that emotional breakdown is like nothing I’ve ever done before.”
As much as she looks forward to that moment as an actress, Liddy said she can’t anticipate it as a character.
“I feel like with Rose you have to constantly live in the moment and live through what she’s going through,” she said.
In the scene before that crisis of confidence, Rose is in the dressing room of her daughter, the now-famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. Her daughter has reached the top, albeit as a stripper, and it’s more than Rose can bear.
Rose is changed after “Rose’s Turn,” the actress said, adding that the best part of the show follows, when Rose admits that all of the pushing and prodding has been for herself, not for her daughters. She pushed her daughter June (senior Michaela Lunz) until she left and then badgered Louise (junior Olivia Schneider) until she left, too.
“I think it takes a lot for a person to say that,” she said.
Liddy said she and Schneider, a fellow Pelham junior, have been doing theater together since they were 10 years old.
“Seven years later, playing that scene together is so cool,” she said.
“Sarah is one of my closest friends. To play that scene, mother to daughter, is amazing.”
For all of its drama — and there is plenty of drama — “Gypsy” has more than its share of comedy.
The showstopper comes with Act 2’s “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” sung by three strippers — Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura — who are teaching young Louise the ropes.
It’s the kind of number that even stops rehearsal.
In the capable hands of senior Ellie Livingstone as Tessie, sophomore Emma Chase as the trumpet-playing Mazeppa, and junior Erin Moore as the wired Electra, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” is worth the price of admission. I’m still giggling at Moore’s take on Electra, which was a revelation.
Pelham’s director Tom Beck and associate director Neil Schleifer took a risk tackling “Gypsy,” a show that isn’t typical high-school fare. But they knew they had the actors and the voices and the comics to do it justice.
Anyone who doubts high-school kids can successfully stage “Gypsy” should take a look at the Running Lines video I shot. Even with a 102-degree fever, Liddy is fierce. And Lunz and Schneider and Livingtone, and Blair Carey as Herbie, all deliver.
“Gypsy”—7:30 p.m., March 20 and 21; 2 p.m., March 22—$20, $15 students and seniors—email@example.com.
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Pelham. Enjoy!