Brass Tacks

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chicago shakes gypsyFor us true-blue, hardcore musical theater aficionados, there is no show greater and more iconic than Gypsy, the sharply-drawn showbiz backstage musical based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, with an unsentimentally-constructed book by Arthur Laurents and a wondrously memorable score, simply one of the best in the history of theater, by Jules Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).  Gypsy is our Ark of the Covenant, our Mona Lisa, our Macchu Picchu, the ultimate expression of our musical theater obsession. I’ve seen several Gypsys, both on film and in live performance, with my defining Gypsy being Sam Mendes’ spare 2003 Broadway revival (which Laurents hated with a vengeance) starring Bernadette Peters’ uniquely and at times jarringly seductive take on Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, the stage mother to end all stage mothers.  I know the show very well so I don’t really expect to be surprised anymore by any production.  But leave it to Gary Griffin, who I’m convinced is the ultimate Sondheim interpreter working in the US today, to mine new layers and resonances, and to provide a different take on this most perfect of musicals.  As I watched, mouth agape, at the respected Canadian actress Louis Pitre thrashing around the Chicago Shakespeare stage and beating her chest King Kong style, devoid of any Broadway diva-like vanities in the devastating final number “Rose’s Turn” (in which the character unleashes all her fury and frustration at not being a showbiz star), I knew that Griffin’s Gypsy is unlike others I’ve seen – hard, hardscrabble, pessimistic, tragic. Ladies and gentlemen, this Chicago Shakespeare Theater Gypsy is the first unmissable show of Chicago’s 2014 theater season.

There is a Gypsy template that most productions follow, whether community-theater or Broadway. Because the show is the ultimate show business tale, every production usually incorporates all types of glitz and glitter and bouncy glamor, as well as brassy, play-it-like-your-life-depends-on-it orchestral maneuvers. Because Rose has been performed by the largest of the larger-than-life divas, from Ethel Merman (for whose singing range the role was tailored for) to Angela Lansbury to Bette Midler (TV) to Rosalind Russell (film) to Peters and Patti LuPone in the most recent Broadway revivals, every production usually has a gargantuan Mama Rose performance that overshadows and overwhelms and outbelts everyone within 25 miles of the theater.  But Griffin isn’t having any of this; like his revelatory production of another Sondheim masterpiece at Chicago Shakes, 2011’s Follies, my top show of that year, he strips away every musical theater accoutrement and every expectation you have of the show to reveal its strong, uncompromising bones: Gypsy is the sad, cruel story of desperate, delusional people trying to fulfill their dreams in the fringes of 1930s show business, the dying outposts of vaudeville. At heart, and despite the gorgeous mellifluence of the score, this play is dark and gutpunching.  This is a play where people eat dog food out of a can because they’re too poor; journeymen child performers lose their childhood and their identities in the grind of moving from one city to another (the chorus boys are all named after cities that Rose’s act has performed in); people settle for third-rate because they can’t, will not ever, get to first-rate.   And Griffin’s lean, sharp-elbowed direction, staging scenes like a Mamet play, clipped, naturalistic, spread out over the Chicago Shakes thrust stage and aisles, makes these points abundantly clear.

Most importantly, Griffin needs a Rose who can painfully convey this point of view, and in wiry, nervy, hard-working Pitre (who was Tony-nominated for Mamma Mia!) he has found a perfect match.  She doesn’t have Lupone’s hauteur or Midler’s heartiness or Peters’ voluptuousness (which was the one trademark of her performance that surprised all of us expecting a Merman-as-harridan performance) which makes her Rose more believable in my mind as someone desperate, brazen, and hardhearted enough to keep trolling the second and third tier of vaudeville to push her daughters with middling talent. Mama Rose is delusional, and although she has lots of energy and verve, she isn’t smart enough to know that the vaudeville circuit she’s settling for small-change gigs isn’t really where her daughters can become real stars (why wasn’t she pushing them into movies as Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin types when they’ve moved to LA anyway?).  Rose has balls but limited imagination, a sad combination which Pitre impressively conveys.  Some of Pitre’s line readings, alternatingly machinating and whiny, evoke more 1930s version of Toddlers and Tiaras mother (which they should) than Broadway diva. And although she magnificently tackles the difficult Mama Rose numbers (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “Rose’s Turn”, “Some People”), I love that she truly acts as part of the ensemble, generously allowing the rest of the cast to shine. Because it’s a terrific cast: Jessica Rush’s Louise/Gypsy, startling in her resemblance to a young Julia Roberts, has the vulnerability and the sadness of a child overlooked for a favorite sibling (so it’s terrific to see her strip number, “Let Me Entertain You” full of infectious glee emphasizing the irony in how Louise finally comes into her own with stripping although her mother reluctantly pushed her into it); Keith Kupferer’s grounded Herbie effectively shows the character’s fierce devotion to Mama Rose even if she constantly pushes him around (although I’m a big admirer of Kupferer and have loved his work in Chicago theater over the years, if I have one nitpick about this production it is his limited vocal abilities during Herbie’s already minimal musical numbers, but c’est la vie); and most especially, Rhett Guter’s chorus boy Tulsa in a star-making musical theater performance, has all radiance and hope and flawless dancing in his big number “All I Need is the Girl” (one of my favorite Sondheim tunes). In a show of showstoppers, there is nothing bigger than “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”, sung by three aging strippers to the wide-eyed Louise. And man, in this Gypsy, this number not just stops the show but stops the earth’s gravitational pull, with brilliant, bombastic performances from Molly Callinan (as Mazeppa), Rengin Altay (as Electra), and the great Barbara E. Robertson (as Tessie Tura).

Griffin’s design team does equally superb work with Virgil C. Johnson’s meticulously-constructed costumes, and Kevin Depinet’s thoughtful, artfully cheap-looking minimalist sets especially evoking the tacky, tawdry world of third-rate vaudeville and small town Depression-era motel rooms that these characters inhabit. Special props go to the 14 person orchestra led by Valerie Maze, sounding like a true-to-form Catskills band but at the same time beautifully giving justice to Styne’s and Sondheim’s genius work.  Griffin in this Gypsy gives us a new way of looking at a sacred, iconic work, which is really one of the important reasons why we go to the theater.

Gypsy is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., until March 23.

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One Response to “Brass Tacks”

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