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Zap of a Mazeppa

May 8, 2008 By:
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Give that girl a horn -- er, hand: Rachel Abrams (far right) is a sceneful in "Gypsy," arriving Friday at the Academy of Music. Photos by Wendy Mutz

Ya gotta have a gimmick ... and what better gimmick than a Jewish Mazeppa?

It's not every young Jewish woman who has trumpets heralding her every hip sway and sashay on stage. But then, Rachel Abrams has more than a gimmick as her trump card in a horn-stuffed bra; she's got talent.

As the stripper with a zipper of a mouth, Mazeppa is one of the most memorable motor mouths in that mother of all mother musicals, "Gypsy," playing a brief three-day engagement beginning this Friday at the Academy of Music.

What nicer way to say happy Mother's Day on Sunday than with a 21-fun salute from a classic musical that says "let me entertain you" with hearts and flowering score considered by many one of the best, if not most brilliant, in Broadway history?

Sure, it's the sweet/sour saga of an over-the-top, over-the-hill stage mother whose idea of stage presents is giving her kids a week-long run at the local vaudeville house. (It's also getting a may-run-forever revival on Broadway in an unrelated current production.) And it is Rose's thorny turn as mother to Louise/Gypsy that just about outstrips all the domestic musical dramas ever done on stage.

But it is "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" that is the "gimme," the one song succor punch outside of "Rose's Turn" guaranteed to turn the house inside out, as Mazeppa mind-melds with two other strippers to teach a new and nubile Gypsy the ecstasy of the ecdysiast, the "dignity" of disrobing in public.

Of course, if Momma were married ... but she isn't, and instead of settling down with the sweet but ultimately bitter Herbie who books the act, Rose settles on Louise as her spotlight to fame after her first choice, Baby June, busts out all over, abandoning her mother and her mother's daze of a dream.

But would Gypsy Rose Lee have been "Gypsy" without the hedonistic advice of the three aging women who took it off -- took it all off -- way before Noxzema advised them to?

Does Rachel Abrams pull all the stops out till they call the cops out? Well, this is the Academy of Music. And this is an actress with national credits, including "Annie" and "Into the Woods."

And she did play Sister Robert Anne in "Nunsense."

Then again, this character has a different habit.

"Every day before I come on, I secretly pray," says the actress.

For a great performance? A great audience? "I pray that the trumpet blows."

And, in a way, that she does, too. It's not the horn that gets the horny old men going. "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" schticks in the mind in part because Mazeppa's talent is so out of tune with the way she looks.

"It's a good thing," jokes Abrams, "that the worse my playing is, the funnier it is."

Funny, she's no stranger herself to the role, having seen it years ago in many productions of "Gypsy," starting in her hometown of Columbia, Md.

Once she was a schleppa, now she's Miss Mazeppa? Well, no, that's going much too far. But Abrams did feel at one time that she didn't have the uh-uh-uh to play leading lady, to say nothing of first strumpet.

But second fiddle? "When I was growing up and wanted to get into theater," says the Syracuse University grad, "my Mom's best friend told me outright that, 'You're not the beautiful ingenue, but if you wait it out, your time will come.' Well, it's starting to."

Starting out with "Cabaret" -- in which she portrayed Fraulein Kost -- was a good bet of a beginning. But some people -- not all people -- don't have that look, she maintains, that startle with the exclamatory "starlet" from the very outset.

The Avis Theory

Abrams as Avis avatar? "When you don't look like all the other girls, you always work harder. For instance, I would have loved to play a Cinderella story, but I don't see that happening soon."

Oh no? What could fit better than the golden slipper of a role she slips into -- and out of -- every night now?

"Putting on the costume," she notes with a laugh, "sets the mood."

And this trumpet of a Mazeppa is no mere mouthpiece for the raunch and roll that rollicks backstage at a burlesque house. "She's also got a heart of gold," says Abrams.

Much like the woman who portrays her. After all, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," sure, but you gotta have a heart to get a head on your shoulders.

Which is why it seems so seductively sweet that Abrams -- a zap of a Mazeppa -- salutes the woman who's seen her through all stages of her life, ending her Playbill bio with a clarion call of thanks. Along with all her stage credits, she credits the one who knows that Sunday is not the only day she'll receive applause. That bio ends on a high note:

"For my mom."

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