Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through March 23
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In most of the productions of “Gypsy” I’ve seen, Mama Rose is the iconic stage mother from hell relentlessly pushing her daughters to succeed in show business out of her own failed ambition. But at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, director Gary Griffin has a much more complicated vision for the anti-heroine of the 1959 musical by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Style (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and actress Louise Pitre brings it to life brilliantly.
Essentially, we watch Rose in the process of becoming a monster as her goal of making Baby June, and later Louise, a vaudeville star seems to come within reach, then repeatedly is thwarted, often by her own belligerent behavior. At first, she just wants to get out of the house and on the road with the girls — she’s called a pioneer without a frontier — and as she pleads with Pop (John Reeger) for money, Pitre conveys a combination of vulnerability and steely determination. She doesn’t have a powerhouse singing voice, and that actually makes Rose’s solos — “Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and finally “Rose’s Turn” — all the more potent and poignant.
We never doubt that Rose loves June (Erin Burniston), the oft-neglected Louise (Jessica Rush), and even devoted, long-suffering Herbie (Keith Kupferer, letter perfect), and that shows in Pitre’s gentle good humor during the duets “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” as well as the delightful trio “Together Wherever We Go.” We understand why Herbie cares for her, root for him to win her hand, and despair with him when her single-mindedness goes beyond acceptable limits.
As the disappointments pile up, Pitre captures Rose’s increasingly desperate drive and deepening denial. She’s no more capable of accepting that vaudeville is dying than she has been of acknowledging that her daughters have grown up and that the same “Baby June and Her Newsboys” act — with slight variations hilariously staged — no longer serves, not that it was very good in the first place.
When the ultimate insult of being booked into a burlesque house leads to Louise’s career as Gypsy Rose Lee, arguably the most famous stripper ever (and author of the memoir that sparked the musical), the ironies come together in the way Griffin presents her less-than-sensational stripteases and the fraught mother-daughter confrontations. Like Pitre, Rush is masterful at betraying a whole range of emotions at once. While Gypsy claims to relish the trappings of success and firmly rejects Rose’s attempts at interference, we feel the anger, pain, eagerness to please, and underlying love that have brought her to this point.
Besides assembling a top-notch cast —including Marc Grapey and Matt DeCaro in several minor roles, as well as Milly Callinan, Rengin Altay, and Barbara E. Robertson, who have a ball as the strippers Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie Tura —Griffin has done a terrific job of adapting what was a proscenium-arch show for Chicago Shakepeare’s thrust stage and scaling the orchestra to the size of the theater. Musical director Rick Fox’s additional orchestrations for the 14 musicians (down from the original production’s 28), who are on a raised platform across the back of the stage, simulate the musical feel of the era between World War I and World War II without sacrificing any of the sound.
Kevin Depinet’s inventive scenic design, enhanced by Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting, starts with an oversize, curvy, gilded proscenium that vaguely resembles a giant mouth or womb. Red velvet curtains create a stage-within-a-stage as needed, while accouterments suspended from the ceiling lower to augment simple sets and props. The costume demands are formidable, partly because of the many quick changes, and Virgil C. Johnson has handled them with aplomb and relatively few compromises in authenticity.
In recent years, local companies ranging from Court Theatre to Writers Theatre in Glencoe have devoted more and more attention to musicals. At first I wondered why they would bother given all the resources at the command of the big touring productions. But Griffin’s “Gypsy” for Chicago Shakespeare has something these road shows rarely do: acting that’s as deep and compelling as in any play.