At Music Theater Works
By Dan Zeff
Evanston – The musical is called “Gypsy” but it really should be named “Momma” because the show is dominated by the ultimate stage mother from hell, commonly known as Momma Rose.
“Gypsy” became a mammoth personal triumph in 1959 for Ethel Merman, who scorched the audience with her stentorian voice and overwhelming stage presence as the woman who relentlessly tries to push her two daughters to theater stardom in the 1920’s. One of the daughters fled Momma Rose’s ferocious ambition and ultimately became a Hollywood star as June Havoc.
That left her little sister Louise in Rose’s crosshairs as the stardom project. That daughter eventually became famous as the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the most colorful show business personalities of the mid 20th century. She wrote an autobiography that became a best seller and the inspiration for the musical that attracted a blue ribbon set of artists—music by Jule Style, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and directing and choreography by Jerome Robbins.
The splendid revival at the Music Theater Works starts with the ingredient any production of “Gypsy” demands, a dominant Rose. The company has cast wisely, selecting Chicagoland theater veteran Mary Robin Roth for the key role. Roth has the booming voice for the part and even resembles Merman physically.
The Music Theater Works hasn’t attempted a revisionist production but director Rudy Hogenmiller, doubtless in close consultation with Roth, has taken a subtly different tack on the character of Rose that gives the work a richer patina of humanity without disrupting the core values that have made “Gypsy” a classic.
Momma is a fearsome lady but the staging gives her a depth that elevates her from a musical Lady Macbeth. As early as the second scene the attentive viewer realizes that this production will be digging a little deeper. In the “Some People” song, Rose credibly delivers her sorry backstory, a life of personal and professional struggle that has left her with nothing to live for but her two girls.
Rose sees talent where very little exists but she bullies ahead, outwardly seeking success for Louise and June but inwardly desperate to give her own life some meaning and purpose. This subtext has always been there but in this version it succeeds in making Rose a more three-dimensional character, and the production is all the better for it.
In the famous closing number, aptly named “Rose’s Turn,” the woman, discarded by her remaining daughter, howls out an aria of desperation and anger, but there is complexity and self-knowledge in Roth’s performance. We are watching the downward spiral of a real woman looking at the black hole of her life, not just an embittered senior citizen having a star-turn nervous breakdown on the stage.
The Styne-Sondheim score is loaded with songs that establish character and propel the plot but can also stand alone as a collection of superb individual numbers. In addition to “Some People,” there are “You’ll Never get Away from Me,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Together,” and “Small World.” Sondheim’s lyrics dazzle throughout. Pay close attention to the clever wordplay in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” bawled out by three second rate burlesque dancers. Who but Sondheim could come up with Mazzeppa as a rhyme for “shlepper.”
Clayton Cross has created dances that capture the sleaziness of the burlesque world with humor and even a little pathos. There is something sad about untalented performers lumbered with bad material, capturing the seediness of theater in the sticks, impossibly far away from the glamour of Broadway.
The large cast is populated with fine performances, starting with Lexis Danca as Louise, the captive of her mother’s ambition until the worm finally turns and Louise as Gypsy Rose Lee finally has the last laugh. That final touchy feely moment between Rose and Louise has always seemed a little false. Louise lets the lady off the hook too readily.
Russell Alan Rowe is Herbie, the theater agent who for some unfathomable reason falls in love with Rose (their physical intimacy is another nice touch in making Rose a person instead of a stereotype). But when Herbie finally explodes in frustration and anger at Rose’s unyielding ambition for Louise, the emotional temperature goes well into the red zone. I’ve never seen that scene portrayed with as much intensity and it works.
The ensemble does well throughout, with two sets of actors, one performing as children and the other morphed into young adults. The costumes designed by Jeff Henry are marvelous in their vulgarity and Joe C. Klug’s set designs effective take us many places, from second rate theaters and third-rate rooming houses to Gypsy’s plush dressing room. Aaron Quick is the sound design and Andrew H. Meyers handles the lighting. The physical production is as good as anything I’ve seen by the Music Theater Works (and in its previous incarnation as the Light Opera Works).
The superior 25 piece orchestra directed by Roger L. Bingaman is always good but its skills are really needed to do justice to Styne’s rich and melodious music.
A director less insightful than Rudy Hogenmiller would have been content to leave “Gypsy” as a star turn for a gorgon Momma Rose, turning Mary Robin Roth loose to overwhelm the show. But the director realized there could be more to “Gypsy” than a blast furnace voice enclosed within a domineering mother figure. Most of the Music Works audience likely will have seen at least one “Gypsy” (what theatergoer beyond millennial age hasn’t), but likely have they have never seen one this as well rounded. Once again one has to sigh that so much talent and so many resources have joined to present a production that is only be playing for 10 performances.
The show gets a rating of
“Gypsy” runs through August 27 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street. Performances are Wednesday ad Thursday at 2 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ticket prices begin at $34. Call 847 920 5360 or visit www.MusicTheaterWorks.com.
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