If you thought you knew “Gypsy,” the musical that premiered on Broadway in 1959 and titillated Hollywood in 1962, get yourself over to Chicago Shakespeare Theater to see it through the eyes of director Gary Griffin.
Pared down to its essentials — like the elegant stripper Gypsy Rose Lee — Griffin’s “Gypsy” reveals central character Mama Rose not as a stereotypical stage mother but, in Griffith’s words, as “a wildly gifted person who suppressed her own talent.” As channeled through Tony Award nominee Louise Pitre, the real Rose blossoms.
Pitre smoothes the sharpest edges off Rose, the thrice-divorced single mother who propels her daughters onto the stage, substituting the vaudeville circuit for the classroom. Nowhere is Pitre’s craft more affecting than in the final number, “Rose’s Turn.” Her husky, sensual voice brings out the richness of Jule Styne’s music, without the brassiness Ethel Merman brought to the role. Pitre enunciates every delicious word of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and makes the most of Arthur Laurents’ book, even when it shows its age.
Like many of the musicals produced at Chicago Shakes, “Gypsy” was created for a proscenium stage, but the move to the theater’s thrust stage has brought only good things, with much credit going to scenic designer Kevin Depinet. “Gypsy” is a meta musical, a backstage/front stage show about theater itself, and the reverse proscenium arch Depinet has created seems to pull us into the action, no matter which side of the curtain we are on.
Luscious costumes by Virgil C. Johnson add much to the appeal, especially the parade of bias-cut gowns that Jessica Rush models as her Louise morphs from a tomboy into stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The visuals are matched with opulent sound from the 14-member orchestra seated a level up from the stage. With an overture that Griffin calls one of the best ever, this “Gypsy” gets the instrumental ensemble it deserves.
Most important, the cast members put on the performances that this show merits. Chicago actor Keith Kupferer brings warmth and strength to the part of Herbie, the theatrical agent who devotes himself to Rose and her daughters, despite the complications that come with the package. Rush brings a beautiful voice and a dynamite body to the role of Louise, and Erin Burniston is convincing as Louise’s sister, June. As Tulsa, Rhett Guter dances as skillfully as he sings.
In a raucous “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” a trio of burlesque queens gives Louise advice on how to grab attention on stage, with Molly Callinan stealing the show as Mazeppa, a gladiator in a G-string. The statuesque Callinan bumps and grinds while playing a horn and singing lyrics only Sondheim could dream up: “If you wanna stump it, bump it with a trumpet!” Barbara E. Robertson joins in the fun as Tessie Tura, with an LED-lit Rengin Altay as Electra.
Indeed, the large cast is chockablock with talented performers, too many to single out. And they bravely ignore W.C. Fields’ warning about never working with animals or children, confidently sharing the stage with a lapdog, a lamb and some of the most adorable child actors working in Chicago.
Under Griffin’s masterful direction “Gypsy” is perfectly paced, with never a dull moment but enough time to allow feelings to resonate. Transitions are especially graceful, with the child actors growing into adult actors in a seamless fast-forward. If “you gotta get a gimmick,” Griffin’s is a simple one: a meaningful story, beautiful music, top-notch performances.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Through March 23, 2014