There’s this gem of a theater in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, and it’s keeping a little secret: the best musical theater productions in the city. Broadway touring companies aside, Porchlight Music Theatre (performing at the Ruth Page Center for Arts) consistently presents impressively staged, impeccably performed productions that should be must-sees in your local theater-going if they aren’t already.
Gypsy, as Porchlight launches its 2018-2019 season, is no exception. Directed by Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber, the story of Rose, a stage mother intent on seeing her daughters succeed in vaudeville where she never could, is a knock-out with E. Faye Butler in the lead role. The production gets a bit bogged down by the sheer scope of the story as it traverses both the decades and the country, following Rose and her daughters from a kiddie act on the B theater circuit to daughter June’s climb to fame in burlesque. But all that chaos—the staging exposed as cast wait in the visible wings to change sets and place us in a new city with placards like a new round in a boxing match—just manage to elevate the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Rose.
Originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, Gypsy, with its music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, is a classic of American musical theater. The likes of Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daley, Bernadette Peters and more have all tackled Rose and her overbearing, not-always-well-meaning ways, delivering iconic numbers like “Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the gut-wrenching, ambitious “Rose’s Turn.” Weber and his creative team at Porchlight (scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec; costumes by Bill Morey; lighting by Denise Karczewski; sound by Robert Hornbostel) must’ve known that the only way they could open a season with Gypsy and live to tell the tale would be if they found an actress for their Mama Rose to match those legends.
And indeed, they have. Butler, a veteran actress who’s been itching to play this role for years, is the driving force behind a show that lives or dies by an audience’s willingness to care about Rose, even at her most selfish. We first meet her as daughters Baby June (Izzie Rose) and Baby Louise (Jillian-Giselle) audition for a vaudeville act; Rose knows better than anyone that her girls are the tops, and she’s going to put together an act to shoot them all straight to stardom. The girls grow up (Aalon Smith and Daryn Whitney Harrell) even if the act doesn’t, and soon June, who’d been her mother’s pride and joy (and ticket to wealth and fame) has had enough, running off to elope with one of the back-up dancers. That leaves Rose with Louise, who’d always played second fiddle to her sister, and as such seems to need her mother’s approval even more. Eventually, as vaudeville continues its march to obsolescence and not even Herbie (José Antonio García), who loves Rose and is loyal to her to a fault, can get them booked anywhere, Louise takes a job in burlesque. It’s only as Gypsy Rose Lee (as Louise is now known) achieves a fame even grander than anything Rose could imagine that the older woman finally admits who she was doing it all for: herself.
The numbers across Gypsy‘s two acts (the show runs 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission) are as sharp as ever. Beginning with a big band performing the overture right on stage, Baby Louise looking on in wonder, and right through to Butler’s ovation-worthy delivery of “Rose’s Turn” in the final scenes, the melodies are familiar yet fresh, and Sondheim’s words are that wonderful, signature mix of witty and biting. Surrounding Butler are a cast that know just when to let her shine and just when to step a bit into the spotlight themselves. García is a gentle giant as the long-suffering man who loves an impossible woman, and their duets allow Butler the space to be restrained and romantic, glimpses of which make her Rose even more tragic. It’s not that she can’t be vulnerable or let others in, it’s that she knows all too well what happens when she does. As the daughter who bears the brunt of Rose’s over-bearing version of motherly love, Harrell deftly carries us through her own evolution, from timid and insecure in her sister’s shadow to a self-agency and confidence that comes with its own celebrity, however racy its origins.
Certainly not every moment of Porchlight’s Gypsy is transcendent; Tulsa (Marco Tzunux) seemed to struggle through “All I Need is the Girl,” and the trio bumping and thrusting through “Gotta Get a Gimmick” could stand to enunciate. But these are fleeting moments in an otherwise stunning interpretation of an enduring American classic. Butler’s performance alone is worth the price of admission; the rest is Porchlight doing what it does best, presenting exceptional musical theater in the heart of Chicago.
runs through November 25 has been extended through December 29 at the Ruth Page Center for Arts (1016 N. Dearborn); tickets are $20-$66 and available online here with a complete performance schedule.
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