Review: Gypsy (Music Theater Works)

| August 21, 2017

Mary Robin Roth stars as Rose in Gypsy at Music Theater Works            



Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music),
   and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)
at Cahn Auditorium, Evanston (map)
thru Sept 27  |  tix: $34-$69  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    


Fierce performances elevate a classic


Emily Barnash, Alexis Armstrong and Anna Dvorchak star as Mazeppa, Tessie Tura and Electra

Music Theater Works presents

Review by John Olson

“Mama Rose” Hovick, the stage mother of the two child performers who grew up to be the actress June Havoc and the stripper-then-actress Gypsy Rose Lee, is arguably the best and most demanding role in musical theatre for an actress. (In fact, yes, I think I’m willing to argue that it is). Accordingly, it’s been played on stage by the many of the greatest musical theater actresses since Gypsy premiered on Broadway in 1959 – Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone (and on film By Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler). So, you don’t want to see just any actress playing Mama Rose in this fable of vaudeville and burlesque in the 1920s and 1930s. Fortunately, and astonishingly, Mary Robin Roth is not just any actress. Lexis Danca stars as Louise in Gypsy, Music Theater WorksShe gives a Mama Rose that can stand alongside some of the best we’ve seen in Chicago over recent years. Roth, the sole Actor’s Equity member in the cast, gives a performance that is nuanced and convincing – starting with an almost desperate Rose at the musical’s beginning showing what drives Rose to become a relentless stage mother. Roth later softens Rose and shows her optimism as the act starts to get bookings (and Rose picks up a new agent/boyfriend, Herbie, along the way). But, she can quickly, yet believably show Rose’s despair when June, the more talented daughter on whom Rose placed her hopes of stardom, leaves the act and elopes. Roth has the vocal chops, as well, to sing out the brassy numbers originally delivered by Merman.

And, she’s supported by an equally fine supporting cast. Russell Alan Rowe is an unusually strong Herbie, cleverly navigating the agent’s dissonance between his attraction to Rose and his dissatisfaction with show business. It’s a tricky role to play – frequently Herbie is interpreted a weak man, but not so here. We see the chemistry between them and a Herbie who is if not Rose’s equal in indomitability, is at least a worthy adversary. Rowe is also a fine singer, though the Jule Styne /Stephen Sondheim score doesn’t give him a lot to sing. The production’s Louise-turned-Gypsy is Lexis Danca – a recent graduate of Milliken University who’s new to Chicago and is a real find. She effectively plays Louise as the awkward teen who becomes the elegant stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, accomplishing the difficult task of playing a supposedly untalented character. Danca herself clearly is talented, as she shows in her quite polished rendition of the plaintive ballad “Little Lamb.”

Sophie Kaegi stars as Baby June in Gypsy, Music Theater WorksMary Robin Roth stars as Rose in Gypsy, Music Theater Works Mary Robin Roth, Lexis Danca and Russell Alan Rowe star as Rose, Louise and Herbie in GypsyLexis Danca and Clayton Cross star as Louise and Tulsa in Gypsy, Music Theater Works Lexis Danca stars as Louise in Gypsy, Music Theater Works 2Lexis Danca stars as Louise in Gypsy at Music Theater Works

Also noteworthy in director Rudy Hogenmiller’s cast is Rosie Jo Neddy as June, in a role that usually draws less attention than the aforementioned Rose, Herbie and Louise. Neddy, a June graduate of Northwestern University’s theatre program, makes her June more than the sweet but ditzy “Baby June” stage persona. Neddy shows us the ambition and frustration that lead June to run away from Rose and the whole “Baby June” act. This detailed performance that utilizes Neddy’s very appealing vocal and dance abilities elevates this role into one nearly equal with the other three.

The show has several secondary characters that have important stuff to do as well – and they’re all expertly handled here. Alexis Armstrong, Emily Barnash and Anna Dvorchak strike just the right comic tone as the strippers that perform the comedy number “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Clayton Cross, who also choreographed the production’s snappy dances, makes a charming song and dance man as Tulsa, whose cry “All I Need is the Girl” leads him to elope with June and leave Rose so he and June can pursue their show business dreams without her. Jerry Miller is authentically rustic as Rose’s father and as the harried owner of the burlesque house where Louise first strips. Joan McGrath finds a fresh take on the more stereotypical character of the secretary to a vaudeville impresario.

Always a demanding musical to produce, this Gypsy is a huge production by any standards. Hogenmiller and Cross lead an accomplished cast of 31 performers that includes kids and one dog (Audrey Sphatt as Rose’s dog Chowsie). The cast is dressed in a huge array of gorgeous costumes by Jeff Hendry that include colorful vaudeville and burlesque outfits as well as street wear of the ‘20s and ‘30s, accented by the equally important wig and hair design by Sienna Kusek. The sets by Joe C. Klug are simple, but enough to take us to the many times and places of the script, bathed in nice lighting by Andrew H. Meyers. The sound design by Aaron Quick delivers an exceptional crispness for Sondheim’s smart lyrics and perfect balance between singers and the 23-piece orchestra led by Roger L. Bingaman playing the original orchestrations by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler.

Russell Alan Rowe and Mary Robin Roth star as Herbie and Rose in Gypsy, Music Theater Works Mary Robin Roth and Lexis Danca star as Rose and Louise in Gypsy at Music Theater WorksLexis Danca, Mary Robin Roth and Russell Alan Rowe star as Louise, Rose and Herbie in GypsyLexis Danca stars as Louise in Gypsy, Music Theater Works Evanston

Music Theater Works (the new name of the former Light Opera Works) follows a producing model unique among non-Equity Chicago theaters that allows them to stage such large productions, with full orchestra accompaniment. By playing in a large theater (the 1,250-seat Cahn), charging a pretty good ticket price (top price is $96) and limiting their number of performances to just seven, they’re able to amortize what must be some substantial production costs over a large number of paying customers per performance. The downside of this approach is that they don’t have a preview period to let cast and orchestra fully settle in and, as a result, their opening night performances often feel a little rough. On this opening night, the orchestra struggled a little with the demanding licks of the iconic overture and there were moments when the overall precision of the production – timing of transitions and the like – seemed off. I suspect this all will settle down later in the run.

I’ve found some of Light Opera/Music Theater Works’ previous productions to be too-slavishly reverential of the original production – respectful and loving, to be sure, but offering few surprises. Hogenmiller and Cross’s Gypsy, though, while certainly not a conceptual production or re-interpretation, is a vibrant take on what many people – rightly, I’d say – consider to be one of the very finest musicals ever written. Arthur Laurents’ book and Sondheim’s lyrics offer so much – an affectionate recreation of the vaudeville and burlesque worlds, an examination of ambition, parenting, and issues of self-esteem – that it’s an unusually rich and dramatic piece. Its honesty about those issues has kept it fresh and unsentimental for nearly 60 years. The fierce performances of this cast deliver all the goods inherent in the writing.

Rating: ★★★½

Gypsy continues through August 27th at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston (map).  Tickets are $34-$96 (ages 25 and younger half price), and are available by phone (847-920-5360) or online through their website (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 3 hours, includes a 15-minute intermission)

Mary Robin Roth and Lexis Danca star as Rose and Louise in Gypsy, Music Theater Works

Photos by Brett Beiner 




Mary Robin Roth (Rose), Russell Alan Rowe (Herbie), Lexis Danca (Louise), Rosie Jo Neddy (June), Clayton Cross (Tulsa), Sophie Kaegi (Baby June), Moria Hughes (Baby Louise), Alexis Armstrong (Tessie Tura), Emily Barnash (Mazeppa), Anna Dvorchak (Electra), Jerry Miller (Pop, Cigar), Ryan Van Stan (Weber, Pastey, ensemble), Ken Rubinstein (Uncle Jocko, Mr. Goldstone, Bourgeron-Cochon, ensemble), Joan McGrath (Miss Cratchitt, Renee), Ryan J. Duncan (Yonkers, ensemble), Raymond Goodall (Kansas, ensemble), Matthew Huston (Angie, Phil, ensemble), Anastasia Arnold (Agnes, ensemble), Amy Jo Barrett, Kayla Boye, Leon Evans, Zachary Scott Fewkes, Kelly Lohrenz, Conor McGarry, Brandon Michael Nieves, Owen Petersen, Gabrielle Sarcone, Laura Sportiello, Genesis T. Williams, Malachi T. Williams, Audrey Sphatt (a dog) as Rose’s dog Chowzie.

behind the scenes

Rudy Hogenmiller (director), Clayton Cross (choreographer), Roger L. Bingaman (conductor), Joe C. Klug (scenic design), Andrew H. Meyers (lighting design), Jeff Hendry (costume design), Aaron Quick (sound design), Sienna Kusek (hair and make-up design), Jamie Karas (properties master), Shannon Rourke (stage manager), Katie Beeks (production manager), Adam Veness (technical director), Brett Beiner (photos)

Mary Robin Roth stars as Rose in Gypsy at Music Theater WorksRosie Jo Neddy stars as June in Gypsy, Music Theater Works


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Cahn Auditorium, John Olson, Jule Styne, Music Theater Works, Musical, Stephen Sondheim, Video, YouTube

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