Daryn Whitney Harrell as Louise, Aalon Smith as June and E. Faye Butler as Mama Rose star in Porchlight Theatre’s Gypsy (Photo: Michael Courier)
This Gypsy revival, the musical the New York Times calls “the greatest of all American musicals", is much more than “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”. The rough-hewn, minimal set could barely contain Chicago’s Grande Dame and seven-time Jeff Award winner—E. Faye Butler as Mama Rose, the ultimate leading lady, who commanded the audience’s attention from start to finish.
Butler’s powerhouse voice and larger-than-life stage persona are a perfect contrast to the low-key set and intimate audience size. The production features a score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, with direction by Michael Weber and choreography by Chris Carter.
Let’s set the stage. An early number showcases Mama Rose’s daughter, June, (played as a child by magnetic Izzie Rose and as a young adult by Aalon Smith) thrilling the audience with Izzie Rose’s infectious delivery and rendition of “Let Me Entertain You” while turning cartwheels, doing the splits and almost daring us to not smile along with her. (We couldn’t resist.)
As Rose leads her daughters and their ensemble from towns to cities in search of vaudeville stardom for Baby June, she alternates between a fierce, loving mother reaching for the stars at any cost to pained matriarch fighting desperation. But Rose never sinks too far to regain her footing. Enter stage manager and agent Herbie (velvet-tongued José Antonio Garcia), so enamored with Rose that he’s easily persuaded and eager to travel across the country with the troupe securing bookings.
As June grows older and becomes less enchanted with performing a young child's role, she leaves the ensemble, marries, and notifies her mother by letter, which Rose receives while preparing to leave for the next gig. Once again, Mama Rose is abandoned, first by three husbands and a performing career that passed her by, and now by her daughter, on whom she pinned her hopes and dreams. She's scraped to the marrow by betrayal, but instead of giving up, Rose relies on scrappy survival instincts to focus all her efforts on making shy older sister Louise (younger: Jillian-Giselle and older: Daryn Whitney Harrell, both vocally gifted) an unwilling star.
Herbie lands the neophyte troupe of young girls a last-ditch gig at a seedy burlesque house in the middle of nowhere. When Mama Rose discovers it’s a strippers’ club—not vaudeville—she insists they leave. Instead, chasing after a small amount of money, Louise fills in for a stripper at the last minute, and an unlikely star is born.
Fast forward to the second act, of life and this tinsel-tinged tale. Touring across the country, with couture clothes, becoming fluent in French and mastering a burlesque act baring little skin, Louise flaunts her body in a provocative dance style. She becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the sophisticated, mink-adorned Belle de Jour, played understatedly and perfectly by Harrell.
In the climax, Mama Rose performs on a bleak, bare stage to an empty house adjacent to Louise’s gilt-covered dressing room. Hearing Rose’s performance, Louise walks next door to the stage to see her mother experiencing a musical nervous breakdown in the heart-wrenching, show-stopping “Rose’s Turn”. Rose sings from a mother’s love and a performer’s bruised ego, past the point of no return: “You either have it, or you’ve had it. I had a dream. I dreamed it for you, June. It wasn’t for me, Herbie. And if wasn’t for me, then where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?” Her maternal love explodes into rage over what she might have been, asking when it’s her turn, knowing her time has come and gone, chasing the spotlight—alone.
Devastated by her mother’s vulnerability and tragic honesty, Louise expresses her feelings and misunderstandings to Mama Rose. Mother and daughter finally accept their frustrations and reconcile.
Star power was not in short supply on opening night. Another Chicago icon, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me straight man and newsman Bill Kurtis loved the show, especially the “scene stealers”—from the hilarious “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” perfectly executed by strippers Tessie (Melissa Young), Electra (Honey West) and Mazeppa (Dawn Bless) to their over-the-top bump-and-grind movements. And sitting next to me, musical theater star Lorenzo Rush, Jr. (of Jesus Christ Superstar and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) echoed everyone’s thoughts about E. Faye Butler’s dazzling performance: “I felt like a student in a master class.”
Through November 25 at Porchlight Theatre, 1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 60610. Tickets: $34-61, 773.777.9884.