To commandeer the role of Mama Rose in "Gypsy" takes a triple threat of pipes, power and presence.
With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, "Gypsy," inspired by the memoirs of famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, ranks as one of my all-time favorites.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater along Navy Pier has a new production of "Gypsy" in the Courtyard Theater running now until March 23.
The first time the musical, which offers a list of musical numbers that grip the heart, spirit and soul had a Broadway premiere was in 1959 and it still manages to grip.
But for this telling, the role of Rose, as performed by Tony Award nominee Louise Pitre, still needs fine-tuning (and more needling for this character of all characters). At last Thursday's press night, I thought Pitre seemed tired and her vocals were not in command of the role as intended. There's no doubt about how taxing this role is, playing the mother of all mothers who thrusts her ambitions for show business stardom onto her daughters: actress June Havoc, performed nicely by Erin Burniston, and Louise, performed by Jessica Rush, who also need some more hand-holding before she seizes the woman inside the woman that becomes the great Gypsy Rose Lee. But the end of the second act, there was more offered by Rush for her performance but still not as believable as I know she could take this persona.
Criss-crossing the country on the fading vaudeville circuit, the mother and daughters are accompanied by Rose's patient boyfriend Herbie, performed by Keith Kupferer, whose singing isn't the best in the west (but hey, our Gary late great, claim-to-fame actor Karl Malden muddled through song numbers the 1962 film version.
While this two and half hour journey is intended to boast one show-stopping song after another—including "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Let Me Entertain You," I never hit on that show-stopper performance number at Thursday's opening, a run which is performed by a wonderful 14-piece orchestra onstage.
The cast of Gypsy also includes: Molly Callinan hitting a home run bugle-style as stripper Mazeppa, Barbara E. Robertson stealing every scene deservedly as Tessie Tura and a nice turn from Rhett Guter as dance hopeful Tulsa. I was more on board with Caroline Heffernan's time on stage as Young Louise, and not as sold as Emily Leahy as Baby June.
There is a large cast that slips in and out of various roles quicker than Gypsy slips out off her stripping clothes on stage. The creative team includes Music Director Rick Fox and what wasn't my favorite choreography from Mitzi Hamilton, especially the "Where Ever We Go Song Number," which I usually love. Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet also doesn't deliver with his stark, minimal set. Costume Designer Virgil C. Johnson has some nice stitches and sparkles to showcase. CST's resident Wig and Make-up Designer Melissa Veal wasn't a favorite find for the wigs for this show, especially a few of Louise's toppers.
But I still think better things will blossom as this cast melds. Just like a stripper's performance, I guess this one is a "wait and see."
Tickets start at $48 with special discounts available for groups of 10 or more, as well as CST for $20 tickets available for patrons under 35. All patrons receive a 40 percent discount on guaranteed parking in Navy Pier garages. FYI: (312) 595-5600 or visit the Theater's website at chicagoshakes.com.