If you need a break from the “orange” holidays (Halloween and Thanksgiving), Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of GYPSY might just be the ticket. Inside the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, gold and red theatrical hues chase away thoughts of pumpkins to carve, leaves to rake, fireplaces to light and pies to bake.
If your holidays happen to include a difficult relative, you’re still in the right place. GYPSY’s infamous main character -- stage mother Rose -- makes other kin pale by comparison. Chicago’s own E. Faye Butler takes charge with a tight grip. As a massive gold and red proscenium frame revolves around them, Rose pushes her favored younger daughter Baby June and underestimated older daughter Louise from one town to the next.
With each turn of the moveable proscenium, the world of vaudeville takes another dying breath. Rose chases a glory that simply doesn’t exist anymore. But she won’t give up – or allow anyone in her troupe of rapidly aging youngsters to give up either.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s casting twist
Director Michael Weber’s twist on this classic musical gem is casting non-white actors in traditionally white roles. In another departure from convention, transgender actress Honey West plays stripper Electra (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”) with panache. But the diverse cast strikes this viewer as so natural, it doesn’t even count as a twist on Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, Jule Styne’s music and Arthur Laurents’ book. It’s all about character.
Butler’s Rose pounds with vocal intensity while the more tender souls in her life cope with her oversized personality. Izzie Rose’s exuberant Baby June belts out “Let me entertain you” and drops to the floor in a semi-skillful split. When she morphs into young adult June (Aalon Smith) and is offered a chance to study acting professionally, she’s not afraid to kick back. Eventually, Rose’s manager-lover Herbie (José Antonio García) stops ducking for cover and reaches his own turning point.
Louise embodies GYPSY’s heart and soul
Daryn Whitney Harrell as young adult Louise – compelled to play the backside of a cow while her sister holds the spotlight – embodies the heart and soul of Porchlight’s production. As Louise clutches stuffed animals on her birthday and wonders how old she really is (“Little Lamb”), a different celebration swirls around her: An Orpheum Circuit representative pays an unexpected visit to their overcrowded hotel room, sending her mother into paroxysms of joy (“Mr. Goldstone, I Love You”). Rose cuts a deal, oblivious to her daughter’s delicate pain.
At the close of Act I when June abandons the family, Rose turns her attention to Louise. Butler ferociously delivers her character’s signature “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” But for this viewer, it’s Harrell who fills the moment with raw emotion, huddling with Garcia’s gentle Herbie as they realize that they will never have a place to call home.
How each person in Rose’s life escapes her clutches is the timeless heartache of GYPSY. Not until Louise steps into stripper’s garb, holds up a mirror and declares “I’m pretty, Mama,” does she free herself and transform into the confident and glamorous burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.
GYPSY’s magnificent score may keep your mind off the cares of the holiday season. But ironically, as you watch the mobile proscenium’s painted gold and worn red curtain make its many turns, it becomes increasingly clear that the characters would love nothing better than some orange to call their own -- pumpkins, fireplaces, leaves and pies.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
E. Faye Butler, Daryn Whitney Harrell, Aalon Smith, José Antonio García, Honey West, Dawn Bless, Melissa Young, Marco Tzunux, Saniyah As-Salaam, Larry Baldacci, Tatiana Bustamante, Joshua Bishop, Elya Faye Bottiger, William “Pierce” Cleaveland, Jared David Michael Grant, Michelle Huey, Jillian-Giselle, Hannah Love Jones, J. Michael Jones, Marvin J. Malone II, Desmond Murphy, Renellè Nicole, Jeff Pierpoint, Ariel Triunfo, Isabella Warren
Michael Weber (director), David Fiorello (music director) Chris Carter (choreographer and associate director), Robin da Silva (assistant director), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic designer), Robert Hornbostel (sound designer), Bill Morey (costume designer), Denise Karczewski (lighting designer), Andrew Ashley Hatcher (props designer), Kevin Barthel (wig designer).
Now through December 29
Thursdays at 7:30 PM
Fridays at 8:00 PM
Saturdays at 4:00 & 8:00 PM
Sundays at 2:00 PM
The Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.