When Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace announced that its revival of the 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy would star Klea Blackhurst as the pushy stage mother Momma Rose (or Madame Rose as the show's late playwright Arthur Laurents insisted), anyone familiar with the theater scene knew what a natural choice she was.
The Utah-born Blackhurst rose to fame in New York cabaret circles with her critically acclaimed 2001 show, Everything the Traffic Will Allow, which celebrated the life and career of original Gypsy star and Broadway legend Ethel Merman. Although Blackhurst has gone on to build a theater career apart from her Merman tribute, she's also taken on a few Merman-created roles like in the musical Call Me Madam for San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon Theatre and Annie Get Your Gun as understudy to opera soprano Deborah Voigt at New York's Glimmerglass Festival last summer.
"Merman has been a real gift for me," Blackhurst said. "I was around for a long time plugging away trying to get people to pay attention to me and it wasn't until I wrote [my Merman show] that people really stopped to notice me and take me seriously as a performer and actress."
However, like Blackhurst's cabaret show and her subsequent performances in Merman-associated musicals, she wants people to know that she doesn't do a physical or vocal imitation of the late Broadway legend.
"It's more a tribute, a celebration of her as seen through my talents and my work," Blackhurst. "You're going to get me doing [Gypsy] with my love and knowledge and affection and expertise I have on Merman, but it's still me and from the point of view of someone who is a musical theater historian but is still very current and in the moment."
The character of Momma Rose is, of course, based on the real-life domineering mother of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. As originally created by director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and the aforementioned Laurents, Gypsy has grown in stature through the years as one of the most important and serious works of U.S. musical theater.
In particular, the role of Momma Rose (whose drive to live her dreams of stardom through her children at any cost) has become likened in difficulty for actresses to play the same way that actors have trepidation in tackling Shakespeare's King Lear or Hamlet.
"Every musical theater actress wants to play it," Blackhurst said about the complex Momma Rose. "But it is not an easy show to perform, that's for sure."
This is the first time Blackhurst has tackled Momma Rose, and she's grateful for having Jeff Award winner/Drury Lane Artistic Director William Osetek helming Gypsy, with fellow co-stars like Jeff Award winner Andrea Prestinario as Louise and David Kortemeier as Herbie.
"[William] cares about this show so much that he rivals my own passion," Blackhurst said. "He really isn't letting me land on the obvious choices sometimes. He's helping all of us dig a little deeper."
This is also the first time Blackhurst has performed at Drury Lane, and throughout rehearsals she has become infinitely impressed with the way the theater is run. She's also relishing the chance to play Momma Rose through such a long run after such a thorough rehearsal period.
"This is beyond my wildest dreams of getting to do [Gypsy] for the first time," Blackhurst said. "I also hope that my performance comes across as thoughtful and fun and whimsical and not just always the steamroller that is going to take you down."
Gypsy continues in previews through Jan. 25, with an official opening on Jan. 26. The production then runs 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 6 p.m. Sundays through April 1 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace.
Tickets run from $35-$45 with lunch and dinner packages available from $49.75-$68. Student and senior discount tickets available for select performances. Call 630-530-0111 or visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com for more information.
Profiles Theatre announced some big news last week. The daring 65-seat storefront theatre at 4147 N. Broadway has not only won the rights to do the U.S. premiere of Neil LaBute's recent drama In a Forest, Dark and Deep from April 13 to June 3, but Profiles has also acquired the former 99-seat National Pastime Theater space nearby at 4139 N. Broadway for this premiere.
Profiles, of course, has a long association with LaBute, so to get the rights to one of his shows before New York is quite a coup. (In a Forest, Dark and Deep is going to replace the originally scheduled LaBute work The Break of Noon, which will be presented next season.)
The acquisition of the National Pastime Theater is also a sign how Profiles is bullish on expanding its storefront theater empire, since it also operates The Second Stage (formerly Stage Left Theater) at 3408 N. Sheffield Ave.
However, one concern is Profiles' re-christened name of The Main Stage for the former National Pastime. Unfortunately, the name might cause some confusion with similarly named Mayne Stage theater at the intersection of Morse and Wayne in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.
For more information on the changes going on at Profiles Theatre, visit www.profilestheatre.org .
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