Chicago Theater Review: GYPSY (Chicago Shakespeare)

by Lawrence Bommer on February 14, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Louise Pitre and Keith Kupferer in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of GYPSY. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Gypsy is as much a celebration of the addictive insanity of show business as a chronicle of the checkered childhood of super-stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Stephen Sondheim’s crackling lyrics give Jule Styne’s tunes whiplash wit and psychological heft.  No question, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s spellbinder heats up frozen Navy Pier, but Gary Griffins’ rich revival suffers a bit on the Courtyard stage with its ¾ thrust. Too much scenery has to drop, losing the all-important backdrops that suggest the very different stages and settings along this very theatrical trail. In a Pyrrhic victory, Styne’s sumptuous orchestrations are cut in half for 14 overhead performers, matching the 1959 musical’s vaudeville context and sounding less like Broadway. (Continuing its Sondheim salute on March 20, C.S.T. will revive Sondheim’s recent, ill-fated Road Show–formerly Bounce!–in the upstairs theater.)

Left intact and fully respected, Arthur Laurents’ surefire book and all-American plot depict a tiger mother from Seattle whose own showbiz aspirations have been dangerously repressed. Embarked on a constant tear, Mama Rose will sacrifice everything—her love life, diet, sleep, and sometimes sanity—for the big-time futures of daughters June and Rose. Her tough love inevitably drives June (as in Havoc) Louise Pitre and Jessica Rush in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of GYPSY. Photo by Liz Lauren.away to become a movie actress. That leaves left-over, lamb-loving Louise (who, to preserve the lousy vaudeville act, never knew her age or wore a dress before she was 19) to carry on the monomaniacal matriarch’s assault on showbiz.

Desperation leads to destiny as the mother induces this suddenly comely young performer into the lower circles of burlesque. The newly born Gypsy Rose Lee refines the act into a merry mockery, and the rest is Minsky’s history. Gypsy chronicles this rags-to-G-strings history with moxie and savvy in superlative songs—“Small World,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “If Momma Was Married”–that collectively earn the running anthem, “Let Me Entertain You.”

Keith Kupferer, Jessica Rush and Louise Pitre in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of GYPSY. Photo by Michael Brosilow.It’s a slice of showbiz to conjure up drafty auditions, unheated dressing room, crowded boarding houses, stolen cutlery, a traveling menagerie—from Seattle to Wichita and across the yawning Depression. The detritus that Rose leaves behind as she ruins yet another marriage before its wedding defines theater as few shows can.

However terrific the tale, Gypsy remains a vintage vehicle for whoever plays Mama Rose. She remains the upstage (and upstaging) stage mother who confuses fame with family as she accidentally kills vaudeville. Ethel Merman stamped the role, followed by the legendary likes of Rosalind Russell, Bernadette Peters, Bette Midler, Patti LuPone, Tyne Daley, and locally, Alene Robertson, Rebecca Finnegan and Klea Blackhurst. And, as often as they sang “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” they finally had to speak the fateful line, “Why does everybody leave?”

Keith Kupferer and Louise Pitre in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of GYPSY.Photo by Liz Lauren.Now the laurels go, somewhat shakily, to Tony Award-nominee Louise Pitre. Not a born belter but an acquired taste, Pitre certainly marinates her show-stoppers (“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) in a character as sharp as hunger. “A pioneer woman without a frontier,” Rose is every striver who’s sick of second billing when she can taste the marquee. Pitre brings little glamour and a lot of world-wise, worn-out wariness to the role. She has friction to spare and next to no eagerness to please. On opening night she seemed somewhat drained from the start but all along she was saving it up for the killer finale “Rose’s Turn,” a nervous breakdown set to notes. Pitre kills in this mad scene, and retroactively redeems the role.

Molly Callinan, Rengin Altay and Barbara E. Robertson in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of GYPSY. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Griffin’s generous, 180-minute staging surrounds Pitre with tailor-made triumphs, especially Keith Kupferer, salt-of-the earth solid as Rose’s patient and highly tested eternal fiancé Herbie. Erin Burniston smolders well as temperamental ex-Baby June. The ultimate late bloomer and ugly duckling turned striptease swan, Jessica Rush blossoms from the self-effacing rear end of a cow into Gypsy Rose Lee, as respectable an ecdysiast as ever scorched a stage.

As always, Griffin commands the finest in Chi-biz—Matt DeCaro as a backstage bully, John Reeger as Mama Rose’s unsupportive dad, Marc Grapey as a cigar-smoking tyro. Then there are show-stopping, scene-stealing Barbara Robertson, Molly Callinan, and Rengin Altay as Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra, the stripper specialists in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” It’s the ultimate tribute to Darwinian adaptation, the secret of showbiz survival and even success. Who needs Galapago finches, snails or turtles? Get a horn!

Jessica Rush flanked by (left to right) Alex Grace Paul, Dana Parker, Lauren Roesner and  Maddie DePorter in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of GYPSY. Photo by Liz Lauren.

photos by Michael Brosilow and Liz Lauren
poster photo by Bill Burlingham

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
scheduled to end on March 23, 2014
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