Chicago Theatre Review
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre: Here She is, Boys! Here She is, World!
Gypsy – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Ever since Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim teamed up back in 1959 to create the Broadway “Musical Fable” that would forever define stage mothers everywhere, its popularity has been never ending. Revived several times on the Great White Way, the musical is a favorite with regional and educational theatres everywhere. Originally written for Ethel Merman, Mama Rose, the show’s main character, has gone on to be played by such theatrical luminaries as Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, and on film and TV by Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler. Barbra Streisand’s name has even been attached to another upcoming film version of the play. And while some critics have labeled Rose as “horrific” and a “monster,” the best actresses playing this iconic role have triumphed by finding her humanity.
This is so evident in Gary Griffin’s beautifully directed CST production. The most recent Rose in Chicago is Louise Pitre (Klea Blackhurst starred two years ago as a very Merman-esque Mama Rose at Drury Lane Oakbrook). Best known for creating the role of Donna, the liberated mother in Broadway’s 2001 hit jukebox musical, “Mamma Mia!” Louise Pitre creates a different kind of tigress for this production. When, at the end of Act I, her daughter June and the boys have walked out on her, Ms. Pitre takes Rose’s profound sadness and turns it into a quiet ferocity, singing her anthem to self-deceptive optimism, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” In Act II, Ms. Pitre attempts to recreate her dream for Louise, but until opportunity drops in Rose’s lap with word “Star” on it, she’s decided to maybe walk away from show business. However, with a new chance to turn Louise into a star, Pitre’s unbridled lust for fame and power becomes uncontrollable. Not until she finally acknowledges the rationale behind everything she’s tried to accomplish (the astoundingly performed “Rose’s Turn”) does the woman accept defeat.
Ms. Pitre uses her strong, gravelly voice to gently caress and coax Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics from Styne’s melodies. The result is that most of her songs play like musical monologues (“Small World,” “Some People”); the actress brings a richer, deeper understanding to music that’s become so familiar to musical theatre fans. However, when Ms. Pitre really lets loose and sings she belts her songs out of the park. This is a Momma Rose who’s not only driven by ambition and ghosts from her past, but she’s as realistic as the lady who sat next to you on the #151 bus.
Keith Kupferer creates a Herbie who’s a great partner for Rose. The ex-talent agent and traveling candy salesman who wants nothing more than to marry and settle down does everything possible to woo his lady love. Kupferer is believable as this sweetly tragic, self-delusional man who hopes that by helping Rose achieve fame for her daughters he can finally convince her to take a walk down the aisle with him. Of course we know this will never happen and, unlike Rose, Herbie eventually throws in the towel and leaves.
Erin Burniston and Jessica Rush as Rose’s daughters, Dainty June (Havoc) and Louise (who will eventually become Gypsy Rose Lee) are excellent. Their comic duet, “If Momma Was Married” hides the pain beneath the humor. While Ms. Burniston gets to strut her stuff in endless variations of “Let Me Entertain You,” demonstrating a strong dance background and a terrific voice, Ms. Rush shows Louise gradually developing into a young lady. Her woeful “Little Lamb” has never sounded lovelier nor more sorrowful, especially when sung to a real, live lamb cradled in the actress‘ arms. Watching Jessica Rush’s sadly tragic countenance then, while reacting to Rose’s manic “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and during Tulsa’s “All I Need Now is the Girl” (sung and danced by terrifically talented triple-threat Rhett Guter) is so moving. But it’s when Louise, draped in costumer Virgil C. Johnson’s simple satin gown, looks in the mirror and whispers, “I’m pretty, Momma. I’m a pretty girl,” hearts can be heard breaking all over the theatre.
The rest of the cast is stellar. The children are all excellent, especially Emily Leahy as Baby June and Caroline Heffernan as Young Louise. Adam Fane, Brandon Haagenson and Joseph Sammour as the other grownup chorus boys dance and sing up a storm. And Barbara Robertson, Molly Callinan and Reagin Altay (who also plays a dynamite Miss Cratchitt) as strippers Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra bump and grind the bejesus out of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Valerie Maze’s full, brassy orchestra literally floats overhead above Kevin Depinet’s golden proscenium set design providing the icing on this gorgeous cake.
Rose claims that she’s not going to die from sitting, but from getting up and getting out. Once they hear about this fabulous production, audiences will be following her example by getting up and out to Navy Pier in order to experience Gary Griffin’s never-to-be-forgotten production. This a show that keeps its musical promise to Entertain You and Make You Smile.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 13-March 23 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier, Chicago.
Tickets are available from the box office by calling 312-595-5600 or by visiting their website at www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.