Saturday December 16th 2017

“Gypsy” reviewed by Jacob Davis

 Lovers of musicals are undoubtedly delighted to see Music Theater Works mounting Gypsy with their full orchestra, and with Roger L. Bingaman conducting, the show does not disappoint. Jules Styne’s compositions have long made it one of the most cherished pieces of music on the American stage, and nearly sixty years later, it is still vibrant from the beginning of the overture to the end of its nearly three-hour running time. But what of the story the music is meant to service? Director Rudy Hogenmiller has assembled a fine cast, including the outstanding Mary Robin Roth and Lexis Danca in the iconic roles of Mama Rose and Louise who, after some awkward early scenes, plumb Arthur Laurents’s script and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (based on Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs) for psychological depth worthy of the score.

We open in the 1920s, with Rose determined to make her young daughters, June (played as a child by Sophie Kaegi) and, to a much lesser extent, Louise (Moira Hughes) into regulars on the vaudeville circuit. She is unaware that she is living at the tail-end of vaudeville; she is downright delusional about the quality of her act. After getting turned down one too many times, Rose takes her daughters and some other kids she assembles on the road, with no funding and no promise of pay, in search of prospects that never really materialize. Now an adult, June (Rosie Jo Neddy) has had it with her mother’s ego and empty promises, but Rose is just getting started with Louise, and they continue down a dangerous path to a rather different kind of success than they had envisioned.

For all that people talk about the glitz and magical draw of the stage as depicted in Gypsy, Laurents was brutally frank about how lousy a lot of vaudeville was. His stage directions describe the costumes as “horrible,” and the orchestra as “tacky” and “screeching,” and he remarks “thank heaven” at the end of June’s newsie performance. That Rose’s obsession isn’t even worth sacrificing for is an uncomfortable truth Hogenmiller’s production embraces head-on, much to its credit. What’s strange is that the first half of the first act is staged like an actual vaudeville show—the actors look out into the audience and indicate when we’re supposed to find something funny and the line deliveries are simultaneously manic and flat. This off-putting style disappears after a few scenes to be replaced by something much more naturalistic, but personally, I found it unnecessary, given how much of the rest of the play is made up of dark humor derived from the awkwardness of the vaudeville and stripping shows-within-the-show. Indeed, as hilariously uncomfortable as the song “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” is as performed by Emily Barnash, Anna Dvorchak, and Alexis Armstrong, “Dainty June and Her Farmboys” matches it cringe for cringe.

To call Roth a powerhouse might be taken to mean her volume is the key to her performance, but her real strength is the range of emotions she imbues Rose with. Her renditions of the unhinged tirades “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are nothing short of brilliant, but her several minutes of silent acting which precede the end of Act I demonstrate a gift for nuance which is required for the famous numbers to really land. While it’s hard to like Rose, exactly, her scenes with her boyfriend, Herbie (Russel Alan Rowe), and the adult Louise do make a convincing case that she has a heart and can inspire them to stay with her for as long as they do. She even has enticing sense of humor. Roth’s Rose is tragic, not monstrous, which allows us to form a strong connection with Louise, who might otherwise appear weak.

Danca is a newcomer to Chicago stages, and hopefully, she’ll stick around. Her transformation over the course of the show from an unconfident and passive child into an independent adult who lives by her charm and wits is astonishingly convincing. Her duet with June, “If Momma Was Married,” is beautiful, as is her scene with choreographer Clayton Cross in the role of Tulsa, and her performance in “Let Me Entertain You” and during her final confrontation with Rose radiates strength and charisma. Hoggenmiller’s design team (scenic by Joe Klug, costumes by Jeff Hendry, lighting by Andrew Meyers, sound by Aaron Quick) does top-quality work, as well, as is typical of Music Theater Works. There was hardly any question that fans of Gypsy would adore this company’s production, but this show is an excellent opportunity for newcomers to be introduced to it, as well. The character-driven drama retains its vitality, as do Sondheim’s clever lyrics and Styne’s lovingly curated music.

Gypsy will continue through August 27 with performances as follows:

Wednesday, August 23 at 2:00 pm

Thursday, August 24 at 2:00 pm

Friday, August 25, at 8:00 pm

Saturday, August 26, at 8:00 pm

Sunday, August 27, at 2:00 pm

To purchase tickets, call 847-920-5360 or visit MusicTheaterWorks.com. Tickets start at $34, ages 25 and younger half-price. Running time is three hours with one intermission.

Performances are at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St, Evanston, Il. Free parking is available in Northwestern University lots after 4:00 pm, the City of Evanston parking garage is nearby. Sheridan Road and Emerson Street are undergoing major construction.

To see what others are saying, go to www.theatreinchicago.com, Review Round-Up and click on “Gypsy.”

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