Everything’s coming up spectacular for ‘Gypsy’ at Porchlight Music Theatre
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
What to make of Mama Rose? She’s a loving mother and a tyrant, a striving dreamer and a terrible bully, a wild-eyed maniac and a tragic hero — or maybe it’s a tragic villain. As played by Chicago stage treasure E. Faye Butler, the indomitable Rose is all of these things, both maelstrom and delicate flower that, like her namesake, loses its petals in the slightest breeze. Oh, and she’s also a star. Something that Butler never lets you forget.
Of course, Rose is a role written for star power, and “Gypsy” is a show that exists so that great actresses can stop it, like a Red Sea custom-built to be parted. It feeds off power, yes, but the role also nourishes it. In this moody, magnificent production from Porchlight Music Theatre, director Michael Weber understands the Shakespearean forces at play. He’s got no problem clearing the stage and letting Butler go to work.
When: Through Nov. 25
Where: Ruth Page Arts Center, 1016 N. Dearborn
Run time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
It’s easy to make Rose a monster, mainly because she does monstrous things. As the archetypal stage mother, she drags her daughters June (played as a youngster by the absolutely irrepressible Izzie Rose and as a young adult by the wonderful Aalon Smith) and Louise (Jillian-Giselle and Daryn Whitney Harrell, both awkwardly exquisite) on the road to vaudeville stardom — blithely ignoring the fact that it’s the 1930s and vaudeville’s in an iron lung.
Rose also bullies her steadfast lover, Herbie (played by José Antonio García with a charismatic weariness), blowing off his entreaties to marry and settle down. Herbie’s smart enough to know that if it weren’t for his managerial talents, she’d have left him in the dust five states ago. He’s also dumb enough (and in love enough) to stay. Rose even sells her father’s solid gold plaque to fund her dreams of secondhand stardom. By every conceivable measure, Rose is a monster.
And yet Butler infuses her performance with glimpses of genuine love and affection, meaning that her monstrousness remains firmly human. She never downplays the character’s teeth-bared ferocity, but she does skip the devil horns. Butler’s Rose is a creature of hustle and ambition, blind to any obstacles, even (especially) when they’re her loved ones. But she’s not evil, just deluded. Cruel, yes, but really just monumentally selfish.
When the many threads Butler strings throughout her performance finally cinch up and ensnare Rose during her climactic number, “Rose’s Turn,” it’s truly something out of a Greek tragedy. You almost expect her to exit stage right and come back with her eyes gouged out. Except that wouldn’t be in keeping with Butler’s performance either, as she makes clever use of the Ruth Page Arts Center’s relative intimacy to whisper where others would below, wisely lowering the volume in order to heighten the intensity.
The production as a whole feeds off of Rose’s scrappy, vaudevillian sensibilities. The set (designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec) is a proscenium arch that rotates to fit the scene — making for some nifty backstage-to-onstage-and-back-again transitions. The wings are open, stuffed to the brim with furniture that is shuffled on and off. Denise Karczewski’s lighting is sparse, leaving wide chasms of darkness that encroach upon the action — and occasionally dropping the actors into too much shadow. The atmosphere on the whole is quite effective, which is to say, quite unsettling — the yawning black of a boarded-up theater.
Both Butler’s performance and the larger production lay bare the twin engines of comedy and tragedy that drive “Gypsy.” The show is funny — Arthur Laurents’ script has some grade-A zingers — but its arc is one that bends towards desperation. (It’s notable that some of Gypsy’s most famous numbers, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Together, Wherever We Go” seem cheerier out of context.) And under the musical direction of David Fiorello, Jule Styne’s iconic, jagged score and Stephen Sondheim’s jam-packed lyrics are vivaciously desperate, music and words pouring out like they’re last-ditch pleas for mercy.
One of the secrets to Gypsy’s longevity (besides killer music and characters, which aren’t a secret) is that it’s a memory play. Based on the memoirs of famed burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, (Honey West, Dawn Bless, and Melissa Young are superb as Louise’s striptease mentors, by the way), “Gypsy” premiered in 1959, long after vaudeville had died for good. It uses the past for its thematic heft, not simply for the sake of nostalgia. Writing about what was always ages better than writing about what is. After all, vaudeville is yesterday’s yesterday’s yesterday. But in the hands of stars like E. Faye Butler, “Gypsy” remains as powerful as ever.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.