Chicago Theatre Review
You Gotta Have a Gimmick
Gypsy – Music Theatre Works
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 never ended. Revived several times on the Great White Way, this show is a favorite with regional and educational theatres everywhere. Originally written for Ethel Merman, Mama Rose, the musical’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. And while some critics have labeled Rose as “bossy and demanding,” “horrific” and even “a monster,” the best actresses playing this iconic role have triumphed by finding and portraying her humanity.
This is sometimes evident in Rudy Hogenmiller’s often beautifully staged, nicely directed Fall production for this newly-named theatre company. The latest Rose blooming in Chicago is Mary Robin Roth. Known around the Windy City for her superbly honest character portrayals, and at this theater for playing such starring roles as Vera Charles, in “Mame,” and the title role in “Hello Dolly,” Ms. Roth creates a raging tiger mama for this production. This talented Chicago actress seems to be channeling Ethel Merman, perhaps even directed to copy her performance. Sometimes it’s a successful impersonation, but more often Ms. Roth pushes too hard. As a result she sometimes sounds sharp and shrill. It’s as if, in trying to replicate the look and sound of Ethel Merman, Ms. Roth’s forgotten to find the subtext behind what she’s singing.
When the actress does tap into what made the real Mama Rose an complex character, a woman brimming with her own insecurities and needs, she creates a powerhouse leading lady. Rose survived years of touring the country during the Depression with a single goal in mind: making her daughter a star. But Ms. Roth needs to pull back a few decibels in her brassier songs to allow her character’s feelings seep through. At the end of Act I, when June and all the boys have walked out on her, Ms. Roth transfers Rose’s profound sadness and feelings of betrayal into a quiet ferocity. When she sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” her anthem to self-deception and unbridled optimism, Ms. Roth takes her character to the threshold of lunacy with a grandstanding performance.
In Act II, Rose attempts to jumpstart her dream of fame once again, this time for Louise. However, until Lady Luck drops a Star opportunity in her lap, Rose has all but decided to walk away from show business. With the chance to turn Louise into the star stripper, Rose’s unbridled lust for fame and power becomes uncontrollable, especially in this actress’ portrayal. Not until she finally acknowledges the motivation behind everything she’s tried to accomplish in life (Ms. Roth’s over-the-top “Rose’s Turn”) does this woman accept a bit of humility and defeat.
Ms. Roth is really at her best, however, when playing Arthur Laurents’ beautifully-written book scenes, or gently caressing and coaxing Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics from Styne’s quieter melodies, such as “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.” The result is that these songs play like little polished gems, memorably sung musical monologues; and it’s at these times that the actress brings a richer, deeper understanding to the music that’s become so familiar to theatre fans.
Russell Alan Rowe, another familiar face on the Cahn Auditorium stage, 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. Rowe 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. Unfortunately, in his final scene, Mr. Rowe not only lets Herbie’s feelings out, but seems to be trying to top Ms. Roth’s bombastic musical numbers. To say this scene is overacted is an understatement. Rowe screams and chews up the scenery to the point where the audience no longer feels any empathy for Herbie, but is simply uncomfortable for the actor.
Rosie Jo Neddy and, especially, the incomparable Lexis Danca, as Rose’s teenaged daughters, Dainty June and Louise (who will eventually become Gypsy Rose Lee) are both excellent. Their dynamically sung comic duet, “If Momma Was Married” hides the pain beneath the humor. While Ms. Neddy gets to strut her stuff in endless variations of “Let Me Entertain You,” demonstrating a strong dance background and a terrific voice, Ms. Danca portrays a stunning Louise. Gradually we watch her develop into a young lady with her own dreams and needs. Ms. Danca’s woeful “Little Lamb” has never sounded lovelier nor more sorrowful, with the sweet animal cradled in the actress‘ arms. Watching Lexis Danca’s sadly stunned reaction to Rose’s manic “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” or the love and longing during Tulsa’s “All I Need Now is the Girl” (sung and danced by terrifically talented triple-threat Clayton Cross) is moving. But it’s that never-to-be-forgotten moment when Louise, draped in costumer Jeff Hendry’s simple blue satin gown, looks into the mirror and whispers, “I’m pretty, Momma. I’m a pretty girl,” that hearts can be heard breaking all over the theatre.
The rest of the cast is terrific. The children are all excellent, especially Sophie Kaegi as Baby June and Moira Hughes as Young Louise. The newsboys, both young and older, dance and sing up a storm. Joan McGrath is an officious Miss Cratchitt; and Jerry Miller, Ryan Van Stan and Ken Rubenstein nicely play a variety of male adult roles, from Rose’s Pop to Mr. Goldstone. And Alexis Armstrong, Emily Barnash and Anna Dvorchak as sensational seasoned strippers Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra sing, bump and grind the bejesus out of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” It’s the number that truly stops this show.
Besides playing Tulsa, Clayton Cross does double duty as choreographer for this production, whipping up so many spirited dances for his cast mates. Roger L. Bingaman’s rich, brassy, 25-piece orchestra brings this score to life, beginning with one of the most perfect overtures in musical theatre. Lit with theatrical splendor by Andrew H. Meyers, Joe C. Klug’s exquisite proscenium set design, complete with sumptuous draperies, backdrops and Vaudevillian placards, provides a fluid environment for this musical and is the icing on this gorgeous cake.
Rose tells her Pop early in the show that she’s not going to die from sitting, but from getting up and getting out. Audiences will be following her example by getting up and out to Evanston to experience Rudy Hogenmiller’s wonderfully entertaining production of a true American classic. Despite some overacting and over-singing, this is a production of a show that keeps its musical promise to Entertain You and Make You Smile.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 19-27 by Music Theater Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-920-5360 or by going to www.MusicTheaterWorks.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.