BWW Reviews: Not Your Usual Mama: GYPSY Ignites
Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Gary Griffin begins his production of the iconic musical "Gypsy" (running through March 23) with Mama Rose as a child. The young Rose approaches an unlit ghost light (the lone light left on a stage after a performance) and, through sheer will power, determination and a bit of foot-stomping, manages to electrify the bulb.
The visual image is an appropriate metaphor for the performance by the musical's grown Mama Rose, Tony award nominee Louise Pitre.
The role of the ultimate stage mother bound and detmined to make stars out of her two daughters no matter what, Mama Rose (aka Rose Thompson Hovic) is iconic in and of itself. Many Broadway belters have played the character since the debut of the1959 musical with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Past Roses include Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters (just to name a few). Barbra Steisand is also rumored to be interested in starring in another film adaptation of the show.
What does this all have to do with Pitre and this production? Pitre, while musically adept, is not a Broadway belter. Her vocal style is closer to a jazz vocalist than a Broadway diva. Hers is a Mama Rose no less determined than we have seen before, but with a bit of a rougher, desperate edge. There's some wear on the tires, so to speak. She has scrimped and saved, suffered setback and weathered many a storm. What Pitre lacks in boffo Broadway vocals, she makes up with in acting. Much like the Young Rose in the first image, Pitre's Mama is not only bound and determined, but also succeeds in igniting the stage. The results are no less illuminating.
Much like the character itself, performances of Mama Rose can tend to be over-bearing. While Pitre is front and center and very much engaged in every scene, the musical manages to feel more like an ensemble show than a star vehicle for Broadway actresses of a certain age.
Of course, it helps that the show's Louise (aka Gypsy Rose Lee, played her by Jessica Rush) bears a striking resemblance to the real Gypsy Rose (take a gander at a few film stills from "Stage Door Canteen" if you don't believe me). Rush's scenes with Erin Burniston (as Baby June, Louise's more talented baby younger sister) are particularly touching. Their duet "If Momma Was Married" has always been a highlight for me in a score filled to the brim with showstoppers. The harmonies between Burniston and Rush could not have sounded better.
The show also features some fine footwork from Rhett Guter (Tulsa). Sure, the orchestration in "All I Need is the Girl" (Tulsa's big number) might be missing a few strings, but Guter manages to imbibe his dancing with such joy, it's hard not to feel uplifted.
Also worth mentioning is the famed "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" which features a trio of strippers offering some sage advice to Louise. Barbara E. Robertson is terrific and, perhaps strangely, a bit motherly, as Tessie Tura. As Electra, Rengin Altay finds some comedic moments working with an extension cord. It's the show's Mazeppa (Molly Callinan) who will likely have you howling with laughter, though. The girl can "bump it with a trumpet" like nobody can.