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Gypsy
by Kerry Reid
2018-10-24

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Playwright Arthur Laurents ( book ), Jule Styne ( music ), Stephen Sondheim ( lyrics )

At Porchlight Music Theatre, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 773-777-9884 or PorchlightMusicTheatre.org; $34-$61. Runs through: Nov. 25

Let's be honest—E. Faye Butler as Rose in Gypsy is a dream come true for musical-theater lovers. But although she's undoubtedly the best reason to see Michael Weber's staging for Porchlight Music Theatre ( few star turns get, well, starrier than this role ), this Rose is surrounded by a bouquet of flowering talents—each with her own thorny issues.

Although the production doesn't make a single change to the book or lyrics to reference it, seeing Rose and her family played by Black actors adds extra poignancy to their story as they scramble to find work on the dying vine of Depression-era vaudeville. When Louise ( Daryn Whitney Harrell ) takes off the blonde wig meant to conjure her more-talented sister June ( Aalon Smith ), who has eloped, and tells Rose "I'm not June," it registers at a deeper level. She's not her sister—and she's not a white blonde girl, either.

Butler's Rose isn't monstrous. She's desperate to be seen, even if only through the refracted glory of her children. By contrast, Harrell's Louise tells Tulsa ( Marco Tzunux ), the dancer she fancies who runs off with June, "I'm secretive. Just like you." The irony is that Louise, who has learned to survive the gale forces of Hurricane Rose by never revealing too much of what's inside her, ultimately becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the world's most famous stripper. Yet at the very top of the show, we see Baby Louise conducting the members of the band onstage. She's already figuring out how to orchestrate the story of her life, just as Lee did with the memoir that inspired Gypsy.

In a way, Weber's show is a smart moving meditation on code switching. Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set features a rotating proscenium arch set centerstage that captures the dichotomy between onstage razzle-dazzle and backstage drama. ( It does occasionally create some difficult sightlines, particularly in Small World, where Butler's Rose and Jose Antonio Garcia's Herbie find their mutual attraction across their personal divides. )

There's never any doubt that Rose loves her kids, and Butler finds many small gestures and reactions to show that amid the bluster. The daughters—including Jillian-Giselle as Baby Louise and Izzie Rose as Baby June—show early signs that they're wise to Mom's gimmicks, but powerless to disappoint her. Garcia's Herbie is a model of decency in a world of low-level showbiz snakes.

Chris Carter's choreography nails the awkwardness of Louise's back-up dancers ( even through that cringey "toreador" number ) and the we-suck-at-dancing-but-we-don't-care bravado of the You Gotta Get a Gimmick trio. ( Terrific turns by Melissa Young, Honey West and Dawn Bless as Tessie Tura, Electra and Mazeppa, respectively, showing off Bill Morey's cunning costumes ). Like Rose herself, David Fiorello's six-piece band knows how to pull off a driving tempo with a hint of underlying sadness.


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