Friday, March 07, 2014

Let It Entertain You: Exquisite 'Gypsy' Comes Up Roses at Chicago Shakespeare -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Thru March 23

It's not inconceivable to imagine someone noting Gypsy being staged at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and wondering, "When, exactly, did the Bard write a musical about a burlesque stripper and her overbearing stage mother?"

But not only has CST always included works not written by Sir William in its repertoire, and since 2001 has mounted several Stephen Sondheim musicals directed by Gary Griffin--I've now seen all seven such productions and am looking forward to the upcoming Road Show--the 1959 musical based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee actually has a storyline that feels vaguely Shakespearean.

Photo of Louise Pitre by Michael Brosilow. At the performance
I attended, Rengin Altay played Rose.
Or at least a main character.

For like Julius Caesar, the title character in Gypsy is not the primary one.

Rather than Gypsy herself, the musical much more revolves around her mother, Rose, who like Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and others from the Bard's oeuvre, is imposing and compelling, yet tragically flawed.

So not only may Gypsy be incredibly apt for its surroundings--the theater is designed in the style of Shakespeare's Globe, though fortunately not outdoors--but the CST's note-perfect renditions of Sondheim's works have celebrated another truly singular master of the theatrical arts.

I have seen a lot of Sondheim shows in a lot of places, including on Broadway, and Griffin's Chicago Shakespeare Theater productions--from his initial, groundbreaking Pacific Overtures, to appreciably appreciation-heightening versions of A Little Night Music, Passion and Follies, to two sublime stagings of Sunday in the Park with George (the 2011 one was by far the best representation I've seen of one of my very favorite musicals)--have consistently outclassed any others.

That continues with Gypsy, even though hardcore acolytes may consider it only half of a "Sondheim musical."

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Along with West Side Story, the show likely stands as the most widely beloved and accessible of any that Sondheim helped to create. But in both those cases (and one other), he wrote only the lyrics, not the music as well--in Gypsy's case, original star Ethel Merman insisted the much more seasoned Jule Style be the composer. 

So for CST to put on Gypsy when they've yet to do Company, Sweeney Todd and other "full Sondheim" masterworks seems a tad odd. Perhaps that's why they're soon, for a time concurrently, also staging Road Show, a more recent, much lesser-known work that began life at Chicago's Goodman Theater in 2003 as Bounce.

But not only is this version of Gypsy absolutely sensational, but--aided by reading Sondheim's annotations in his excellent Finishing the Hat compendium (one of two)--Griffin's dazzling production helped me more fully embrace it as a "Sondheim musical."

Working with his West Side Story collaborators--book writer Arthur Laurents and director Jerome Robbins--as well as Styne, Sondheim wrote a typically brilliant set of lyrics that move the story along while conveying more universal truths. 

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
I won't delay the actual review further by citing examples of lyrical genius, but find it interesting to note that the phrase "coming up roses" was not in the lexicon prior to the song "Everything's Coming Up Roses" that is sung by the Rose character (known as, but never actually labeled Mama Rose).

I also won't spend much time recapping the plotline of a 55-year-old musical regarded as one of the best of all-time--there is also a movie version--but Gypsy begins with Rose managing the fledgling vaudeville careers of her young daughters, the effusively talented June (who would become an actress known as June Havoc) and the mousy, overshadowed Louise, who would evolve into Gypsy Rose Lee.

Everyone in the cast at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is superb--including the kids that play June and Louise in the early parts (Emily Leahy and Caroline Heffernan)--but when I arrived on Wednesday night, I was initially disappointed to learn there would be an understudy for Louise Pitre as Rose.

Pitre, a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran who I had seen years ago on the first American tour of Mamma Mia, has consistently earned raves for her portrayal, including from the Tribune's Chris Jones who called this "the best Gypsy in Chicagoland for years."

Though I hoped for the best, I noted that her understudy--Rengin Altay--didn't even have many musicals among her listed credits. 

Well, while I assume that Pitre--who I was told had performed at Wednesday's matinee but was suffering from a cold--is indeed outstanding in the role, Altay was so good that it's hard to imagine anyone being significantly better.

Photo credit: Liz Lauren
Her singing was consistently terrific--and I can't imagine those old Merman numbers are easy to belt out--but I just as much loved her nuances in portraying Rose.

This comment does not  reflect specifically upon any other actress--and I've seen the great Patti Lupone play Rose twice--but Altay masterfully avoided imbuing the archetypical stage mother with overt bitterness, cruelty or venom.

While you never doubt that Rose's pushiness stems from a damaged psyche, in Altay's hands steely determination is much more apparent  than actual malevolence; thus you also never doubt that Rose really loves her kids and even Herbie, her long-suffering lover and manager of the family act (terrifically portrayed by Keith Kupferer).

Perfectly complementing Altay's (and one presumes, Pitre's) Rose is Jessica Rush as the grown up Louise/Gypsy.

Late in Act I, as Louise remains greatly overshadowed--to her mother and others--by her much more musically gifted sister (Erin Burniston well plays the grown June), Rush subtly makes you feel her clear pain and longing while never corrupting Louise with bitterness or envy.

So early in Act II, despite Louise quarreling with her overbearing mother, Styne & Sondheim's masterful triad song, "Together Wherever We Go," never rings phony or false as Louise, Rose and Herbie affectionately sing of unified determination.

And Rush wonderfully transitions the demure Louise into the luminous Gypsy, showcasing a great set of lungs--in dual contexts--along the way.

It was also a joy to see Chicago stage stalwart Barbara Robertson as one of the three strippers who teach Gypsy the ropes.

Photo credit: Liz Lauren
So while simply to observer a well-sung Gypsy would be a great pleasure, there is a depth to this production that takes it to a whole other level.

Though I am admittedly prone to hyperbole as often as inspired to do so, this production of Gypsy is the best performance of any type I've seen so far in 2014.

And excepting concerts by Springsteen, McCartney, the Stones and a few others, there may not be any form of live entertainment that stirs my soul and enriches my life to the extent of Chicago Shakespeare doing Sondheim.

I look forward to Road Show.

While I was happy to avail myself of half-price tickets to Gypsy via HotTix, I wish I was at least 11 years younger so as to take advantage of CST's terrific offer of $20 tickets for those under 35. If you are eligible to purchase a pair of tickets for such a bargain--and only one attendee need meet the age requirements--you'd be silly not to.

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