By Barry Reszel
William Shakespeare‘s Juliet tells us, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Well, Juliet obviously never saw E. Faye Butler as Mama Rose. For truly, nothing is sweeter than that.
In Porchlight Music Theatre’s current production of the musical fable, Gypsy, it matters not whether Louise sings out (she does); because this stage belongs fully to her mother, the muther of all stage mothers, performed to stylized perfection by a true Chicagoland treasure.
In her self-proclaimed “role of a lifetime” that’s been called “The King Lear of music theatre,” seven-time Jeff winner Butler leaves an indelible mark on an iconic character. Distinguishing herself from the Mama Rose standard-bearer, Ethel Merman (for whom the show was written), Butler owns the Porchlight production with a nuanced performance of musical theatre’s most complex character, the outed, vaudevillian mommie dearest of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
Gypsy is the 1959 Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim amalgamation written for Merman and reprised by luminaries Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury, among others. Considered by some to be the perfect American musical, its rousing, well-known songbook features “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “If Momma Was Married,” “Together Wherever We Go” and a host of others, all of which make up one of the very best overtures in the American musical theatre canon.
It’s all gorgeously performed by Porchlight’s onstage orchestra, whose members move to the exposed wings in Director Michael Weber‘s vision of a show within a show, exposing the hard lives of vaudeville performers and Rose’s overbearing desires to turn her daughters into the star she never was. A full plot synopsis may be read here.
It cannot be overstated that it’s Butler’s performance, specifically how her Rose affects other characterizations, that makes this Gypsy truly extraordinary. It’s easy to overdramatize Rose, particularly in the pivotal “Rose’s Turn” scene at the story’s end. But Butler’s ability to refrain from exaggeration and keep her Rose real permits audiences of this Gypsy to see her love interest, Herbie, wonderfully played by José Antonio Garcia, as more than a lapdog caricature.
So too, Rose’s daughters—June (Izzie Rose as a child, Aalon Smith as a teen) and Louise (Jillian-Giselle as a child and Daryn Whitney Harrell as a teen/young woman), who becomes the famed stripper—are fully authentic as daughters, friends and sisters, making the realization that they are, primarily, momma’s pawns, all the more terrifying.
To be sure, the role of Louise is a career-maker, and Harrell, who already sports an impressive resume that includes national tours with The Book of Mormon and Elf, is a star in the making. Her “Little Lamb” solo is exquisite as is the terrific song/dance duet with Tulsa (Marco Tzunux), “All I Need is the Girl.” But perhaps Harrell’s greatest moment is her awkwardly, non-sexy first striptease version of “Let Me Entertain You” that leaves patrons understanding the fullness of her character’s mother’s compulsions.
With terrific choreography by Chris Carter, music direction by David Fiorello, assistant direction by Robin da Silva, sets by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, costumes by Bill Morrey, lighting by Denise Karczewski and sound by Robert Hornbostel, all backstage elements are perfectly professional. Together with massive, ensemble cast of more than 30 talented actors, they combine to make this Gyspy a must-see production.
Because indeed, it’s Rose’s turn, and, sorry Juliet, a Rose by any other name than E. Faye Butler is not as sweet.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Gypsy” through December 29 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Michael Courier.