Fabulous casting of this classic tale of a show-biz stage mom with sharp elbows and a never-take-no for an answer determination makes this latest version of “Gypsy” a can’t miss that will cause audiences to see Momma Rose in a different light.
The role is almost synonymous with Ethel Mermin, whose house rattling and unmistakable pipes brought great acclaim to the character and the show when she belted out tunes like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Some People” and “Rosie’s Turn.”
Now, there’s a new Rose in town.
Louise Pitre, a welcome newcomer to the CST stage, digs deep in bringing Rose to over-the-top life. She is no Mermin sound-alike, but boy, does she deliver a performance.
As in any good “Gypsy” production, Pitre shows us a Rose that is never settled. But she delves deep into the character, grabs her strengths and flaws and does not let go.
The story, based on the memoirs of famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, is set in the early part of the 19th Century, when vaudeville was on its way out and burlesque was becoming popular.
Rose will do anything to make her daughter June a star, casting her other daughter Louise as a boy and even the back end of a horse. Crossing the country for any show job she can get, she takes her girls and a rag-tag troupe of boys everywhere except where they dream to be – in a home with a family.
Pitre’s show-stopping delivery of “Rosie’s Turn” tells the whole story. In voice, she is no comparison with many others who have played the role, but it’s hard to imagine a more conniving, manipulative and always determined portrayal of this iconic figure of American theater. And she makes it all believably human.
Her loveable and humble boyfriend Herbie, played to perfection by Keith Kupferer, is reluctantly coerced into going back into the talent agent business by Rose. Kupferer is so sweet and quietly caring that it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a great singing voice. In fact, it works well.
Jessica Rush is wonderful as the gangly-turned-gorgeous Louise who plays second fiddle to her sister June (Erin Burniston).
Once June leaves with one of the newsboys in the show, Tulsa (Rhett Guter, delivering a wonderful dance solo), and the others also leave the show, long-neglected Louise becomes the focus of her mother’s ambitious attentions.
Much against Louise’s desire, she is thrust into a role that leads to her becoming the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But this is only before she gets an eye-opening and hilarious lesson from three strippers, Mazeppa (Molly Callinan), Electra (Rengin Altay) and Tessie Tura (Barbara Robertson), on how “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
Of course, Griffin does not neglect the magnificence of the music by Julie Styne with lyrics by Sonheim. In a mezzanine style platform a story above the stage, the brilliant 14-piece orchestra with music direction by Rick Fox is dazzling from the exciting and outstanding overture to the last note.
A creative set design by Kevin Depinet works beautifully in creating a 19th Century vaudeville stage on the CST thrust stage.
Great costume design by Virgil C. Johnson and choreography by Mitzi Hamilton round out the production to make this a must-see show.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Gypsy" runs through March 23 in CST’s Courtyard Theater. For information and tickets visit the Chicago Shakespeare Theater website or call the box office at 312-595-5600.