By Barry Reszel
1. Any journalism teacher worth his or her salt will rightly tell students not to bury the lede in a news story.
2. This review is not a news story.
What, Theatre Mommy Dearest was already taken?
Evanston-based Music Theatre Works is staging a late summer production of the favorite “musical fable,” Gypsy, the 1959 Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim amalgamation that outed famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee‘s mother as a warbling, Vaudevillian Joan Crawford.
A rousing, well-known songbook featuring “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “If Momma Was Married,” “Together Wherever We Go” and a host of others, when well sung, makes for a most enjoyable evening of musical theatre. And that is certainly the case with the Rudy Hogenmiller-directed production. Even better, the score (including one of the very best overtures in the American musical theatre canon) is gorgeously performed by a 25-piece orchestra at Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium under the expert baton of Music Director Roger L. Bingham.
The signature role of Momma Rose, unquestionably the production’s lead, often receives greatest attention from audience members and reviewers. There’s a tendency to see how each actress taking it on might distinguish herself from the iconic Ethel Merman (for whom the show was written) portrayal. And there’s no shortage of those who have tried. Rose has been played by such luminaries as Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury, among others.
In the current, local production, the task is given to Mary Robin Roth, who sports a host of regional and national lead credits. With a first-rate singing voice and command of the stage, her performance is a most believable Roth-channeling-Merman Rose rather than a Roth-finding-Rose’s-humanity-and-molding-the-character-into-her-own-incarnation.
At times, the work to replicate an icon manifests in overdone dramatization, a la “Rose’s Turn.” And it seems to have likewise affected the performance by her love interest, Russell Alan Rowe, as the likeable Herbie who goes off the rails when he finally grows a spine near the show’s end. (Those needing a Gypsy plot summary may read it here.)
These nuance nits don’t mean their performances aren’t generally excellent. The Rose and Herbie duets on lovely ballads “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” are tender, endearing and joyfully memorable. So too are the performances of Rosie Jo Neddy as an almost robotic June and Clayton Cross as June’s runaway love interest, Tulsa. Both are enhancements to this overall fine production. In particular, Cross’ movement in what amounts to a solo dance number in “All I Need is the Girl,” is mid-show ovation-worthy, indeed.
In addition to his stellar rendition of Tulsa, Cross well choreographs the rest of this large cast, all of whom bring talented energy to his excellent work as well as the wonderful songbook. In particular, Alexis Armstrong, Emily Barnash and Anna Dvorchak are simply hilarious as veteran strippers Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra. Their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” is a true highlight
So too, Joe C. Klug’s necessarily functional set design is professionally lit by Andrew H. Meyers, and the quickly executed scene changes (and there are a lot) by MTW’s efficient backstage crew help keep the overall timing clipping along nicely.
But the singularly important takeaway from Music Theatre Works’ 2017 Gypsy is the standout performance of Lexis Danca as Louise, who becomes Gypsy Rose Lee. Every scene this newly minted Millikin University (musical theatre and dance) graduate touches oozes with reality in action and glance; evolving-character perfection in movement and dance; and depth and sweetness in vocals.
From the tender solo ballad, “Little Lamb,” to the “If Momma Was Married” duet with Neddy, “Together Wherever We Go” trio with Roth and Rowe and ultimate sultry solo, “Let Me Entertain You,” Danca performs flawlessly. Her actions during the entire transformation from shy sister and forgotten daughter in Act 1 to queen of burlesque in Act 2 are those of a stage veteran, not a recent college graduate. Yes, her resume includes work at the excellent Music Theatre Wichita, but this is undoubtedly Danca’s post-graduation professional cotillion, and Chicagoland is lucky it’s being held here.
So for this review, considered the lede purposefully buried. But heed its advice and let this Gypsy entertain you as its Louise breaks out in a big way.
Music Theatre Works presents “Gypsy” through August 27 at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, IL. More information and tickets are available here.