Everyone from Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly to Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone has had a chance to put her stamp on Mama Rose, the volcanic figure at the center of “Gypsy,” the emotionally scorching 1959 Broadway musical about the woman who uses her daughters (and everyone else who passes through her life) to realize her own unfulfilled dreams. And while the show unquestionably needs a stellar performer at its center, here is the irony of it all: This is the story of a woman propelled by the bitterness of never having achieved stardom.

Despite an extensive career on local stages, in Broadway productions and beyond, veteran Chicago actress Mary Robin Roth might not be a household name. But watch her grab hold of the role of Mama Rose in the Music Theater Works production of the show now at Evanston’s Cahn Auditorium, and you will not only see a musical theater master at work, but you will understand that marquee “celebrity” is beside the point here. Roth’s Mama Rose is a tireless force of nature who can belt out the show’s brilliant score with the best of them. And it doesn’t get much better than the work of composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

When: Through Aug.27
Where: Music Theater Works at
Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston
Tickets: $34 – $96
Info: (847)920-5360;
Run time: 2 hours and
50 minutes with one intermission

Russell Alan Rowe plays Herbie and Mary Robin Roth is Rose in the Music Theater Works production of “Gypsy.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

Roth also is surrounded by a big production skillfully directed by Rudy Hogenmiller, choreographed by Clayton Cross and featuring musical direction by Roger L. Bingaman (who leads the show’s brass-driven orchestra) — one that reinforces the ruthless, bitter and profoundly heartbreaking aspects of this story penned by Arthur Laurents and inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the fabled burlesque star with class. The portrait of a woman compulsively at war with herself and her thwarted dreams, “Gypsy” limns the resulting warped relationship between a mother and her two daughters, and her inability to love the man who stands by her through thick and thin. It also views all this through the lens of American show business in the 1920s and ’30s, as vaudeville thrived and then died, and as burlesque temporarily filled the void.

Rose might be blind to many things, but her bulldozer-like will and relentless energy and determination cannot be denied. She is a survivor, but one profoundly damaged by the very traits that keep her plowing forward as the stage mother from hell who will stop at nothing to satisfy her own emptiness. Roth belts out the show’s mighty anthems (“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and the final meltdown number, “Rose’s Turn”), with Merman-like pipes, and brings just the right humanizing charm to her duets (the wonderfully colloquial “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me”) she shares with Herbie (a fine turn by Russell Alan Rowe), the agent and concessions salesman who wants to become her (fourth) husband.

Although it is the blonde June (Rosie Jo Neddy) who, from childhood, Rose has set her sights on as “a star in the making,” she is the daughter who finally throws off her infantilizing costumes and leaves her mother behind. And it is for Louise (Lexis Danca), the forever overlooked girl with a warm heart and a craving for a normal family life, to unexpectedly find fame and fortune in burlesque. Danca, a leggy beauty of easy elegance, captures the smart yet guileless aspects of her character, and also declares her independence with just the right razor-sharp intensity after easing into her new-found role. (Danca’s “Let Me Entertain You” allure is enhanced by a series of beautiful gowns designed by Jeff Hendry.)

Choreographer Cross doubles as Tulsa, the vaudeville dancer whose rendering of “All I Need Is the Girl” — a dreamy Astaire-like duet with a broom (rather than with Louise, who looks on longingly) — is winningly performed. And there is raucous fun courtesy of the three strippers Louise encounters at a burlesque house in Kansas: the balletic Tessie Tura (Alexis Armstrong), the brash and brassy Mazeppa (Emily Barnash), and the electrically lit Electra (Anna Dvorchak).

“Desperate people do desperate things,” Rose says at one point in the show. And it is that crazy desperation, so brilliantly captured by this musical’s creators, that makes “Gypsy” so unforgettable.

Mary Robin Roth (standing, center) plays Rose, and Lexis Danca (with birthday cake) plays Gypsy Rose Lee, with the ensemble of Music Theater Works’ cast for “Gypsy.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)