Chicago Theater Review: GYPSY: A MUSICAL FABLE (Porchlight Music Theatre at Ruth Page Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 21, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Some people say Gypsy: A Musical Fable is the greatest Broadway musical ever written. And some people are probably right. It isn’t just a stirring story of an ugly duckling turning into a swan, or a stage mother from hell morphing into a humble fan (and admitting that for years she was living vicariously through her daughters and not for them).

It’s not just because Gypsy is that rare musical where every song either carries its weight, earns its place in the plot, conjures up its context (the era of vaudeville and the world of burlesque); or stands on its own for fertile melody and brilliant lyrics (who can resist such wonders as “Together, Wherever We Go,” the waltz “If Momma Was Married,” or the rapid romp “Mr. Goldstone, I Love You”?); or because the story pulls you along, as frantically as Rose does her fractious and all-suffering thespian clan (“Some People” is one of the greatest “I Want” songs in musical lore).

No, it’s mainly because, with its brilliant book by Arthur Laurents, Gypsy captures why we make musicals and see them — the drive to exchange humdrum life for showbiz moxie, even if that life is a one-trick pony, a trick of the light, and smoke-and-mirror tricks. The love of the art, with all its appalling and appealing truth and tinsel, propels this unstoppable plot to its dynamite ending. (It’s everything you don’t find in Pride Plays’ current It’s Only a Play, a mean mockery of showbiz ambitions.)

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. This slice of showbiz conjures up drafty auditions, unheated dressing rooms, 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 it even happens defines theater as few shows can. The rest is legend.

However strong the story and diverse its travelogue, it’s essentially a vehicle for whoever plays Mama Rose, the mother hen who lays so many eggs, who confuses fame with family as she accidentally kills vaudeville. Ethel Merman grew the role, Bette Midler cured it (as in ham), then — on Broadway and in Chicago — Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, Rebecca Finnegan, Klea Blackhurst, Alene Robertson, Angela Lansbury, so many moms from hell. 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?”

Now — as if to prove there is a God — it’s E. Faye Butler’s turn to enlarge an already gargantuan part, and without color-blind casting as the excuse. No, with a slightly different complexion, this is one more tale of a tiger mom who finally tames herself as she wises up to a lifetime of compensatory sublimation.

In Michael Weber’s superb staging for Porchlight Music Theatre, the life force known as Butler rents the part to buy. A born belter when she sings, but almost carnivorous when she strikes out to defend her dreams, Butler sinks her show-stoppers (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Small World”) in a character as non-negotiable as hunger, and as basic as breathing. “A pioneer woman without a frontier,” Rose is every striver who’s sick of second billing when she can taste the marquee.

Curiously, compared to Rosalind Russell or even Bernadette Peters, Butler plays Rose with more friction and less eagerness to please. A borderline Machiavellian narcissist, this driven dynamo doesn’t give a damn. But in “Rose’s Turn” she breaks down beautifully, all her mother love suddenly congealing into burning rage over what she might have been, not daughters Baby June or little Louise. Call it scream therapy, closure, an epiphany or catharsis, it works on more than Mama Rose.

Framed by an old-style proscenium revolving to set the well-textured locales in Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s supple scenery, Weber’s elaborate staging surrounds Mama Rose with tailor-made triumphs, namely José Antonio García, down-to-earth and feelingly frustrated as Rose’s patient suitor Herbie, Aalon Smith as the temperamental ex-Baby June, and, above all, Daryn Whitney Harrell, a self-effacing Louise until she blossoms into Gypsy Rose Lee. As if to distance her role from the memory of Natalie Wood, Harrell’s most cunning contribution comes with her first strip. Forgetting she’s supposed to be a lady (the attribute which placed the sophisticated ecdysiast away from the bump-and-grinders), she’s clearly angry at her mother and so much else. But slowly the joy of finally being seen, and on her own terms, overwhelms everything else and, yes, a star is born.

With all these set changes, the scenery necessarily really does look like scenery until it’s hard to tell the real-life settings from Rose’s improvised backdrops. That might have been a problem had Kmiec not allowed for wing space dressing rooms and prop placement (supplied by Andrew Ashley Hatcher and Jennifer Wenau). With this wizard touch, Gypsy’s cow-to-celebrity star turn becomes one giant act for the Chitlin’ Circuit and TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Association), the vaudeville circuits for African-American performers in the 1920s. Bill Morey’s mettle-making costumes turn back the clock with every thread. Denise Karczewski’s old-fashioned lighting, complete with vintage footlights, paint the play perfectly.

Thus, everything feels natural, like Marco Tzunux’s awesome semi-solo as dance-happy Tulsa crooning how “All I Need Is the Girl” and the never-more-hilarious trio “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” vaudevillian overkill strutted to the skies by Melissa Young, Dawn Bless, and Chicago favorite Honey West. Tzunux’s too-brief song-and-dance and, yes, even the novelty number with trumpet, lights and pasties remind us exactly why we sit in our seats or, more importantly, don’t. Everything’s coming up Gypsy.

photos by Michael Courier

Porchlight Music Theatre
Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St
ends on November 25, 2018 EXTENDED to December 29, 2018
for tickets, call 773.777.9884 or visit Porchlight

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