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Everything’s Coming Up Rose

Arthur Laurents’ glorious Musical Fable is certainly one of the most entertaining and frequently produced shows in theatre history. While a fictionalized biography of famed stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, this show is also a heartbreaking story about a mother fiercely determined to have her children achieve stardom, at any cost. It’s a bittersweet  journey that travels from Vaudeville to Burlesque, filled with love, sacrifice, and the need to be noticed and accepted. Featuring a hit score by the great Jule Styne with lyrics by the inimitable Stephen Sondheim, this theatrical classic is both a thrilling treat and a timeless treasure.

Curtain up and Light the Lights! Gifted guest director Amanda Dehnert has crafted a delightfully entertaining and particularly unique vision for this beloved show. Unlike previous productions I’ve seen, the show’s overture—one of the best in the annals of musical theatre—actually opens the show. It’s used here as a prologue to the story that’s about to unfold. During this instrumental prelude, Gypsy Rose Lee enters the stage during which an array of characters from her past occupy her memory. Finally she peers into a mirror and glimpses her younger self. Then, as the overture concludes, all her reminiscences fade into darkness as the lights and scenery, beautifully designed by Jesse Klug and Collette Pollard, majestically rise into place. In this moment, Gypsy’s story begins at the beginning at Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Variety Show.

Ms. Dehnert takes the idea literally that this biographical musical is a journey. As we travel through the lives of Mama Rose, Herbie, Baby June and Louise (eventually to become Gypsy Rose Lee), the director ingeniously makes the most of a collection of old trunks, foot lockers and suitcases, all repurposed and disguised as tables, chairs, beds and other set pieces. While a modest way of dressing the set, this is an especially creative and subtle nod to the voyage each character will take through their lives, from childhood to adulthood.

“Gypsy” is filled with wonderful characters, played by a diverse cast of more than two dozen multitalented performers. As Mama Rose, the incredibly talented Lucia Spina returns to the Marriott Theatre from several Broadway and regional productions. She creates a driven woman, hell-bent determined to turn her daughters into stars. Ms. Spina displays an unquestionable strength and a touching vulnerability in her character. She also projects a bit of fun and a flirtatious quality that really endears this Madame Rose to her audience. Even more astounding, Ms. Spina brings a powerhouse belt to every one of her musical numbers, serving up songs with absolute pitch-perfect renditions of “Some People,” “Small World,” “Together Wherever We Go” and her signature anthem to determination, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” But it’s her emotional eleventh hour number, “Roses Turn,” that becomes a cathartic culmination of everything this woman has endured in life. In a word, Lucia Spina is extraordinary.

She’s matched by handsome, talented Broadway actor/singer Nathaniel Stampley. Playing Herbie, this gifted performer will be remembered for his heartfelt performances in Marriott’s “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Ragtime.” In this role, Mr. Stampley is as sincere and loving as Rose is blindly determined and single-minded. And did I mention that Mr. Stampley has the sweetest voice, this side of the Orpheum Circuit, along with tons of charisma to boot?

Tori Heinlein is a feisty and equally determined June, with younger Baby June played with squeaky-voiced vivacity by veteran child star, Elin Joy Seiler, making her return the Marriott. Ms. Heinlein is making her auspicious, baton-twirling  Marriott debut as this teenage blonde bombshell, but she’s appeared on Broadway in “White Christmas,” as well as nationwide in many other leading roles. In this production she demonstrates her talents as a true triple threat.

Lovely Lauren Maria Medina, last seen at the Marriott in “West Side Story,” plays Louise/Gypsy much differently than most actresses. Ms. Medina peppers her spunky portrayal with good humor and optimism, instead of simply hurt and loneliness, making her Louise a young woman with whom the audience can truly identify and who they cheer on to success. Ms. Medina is very believable as a teenager, especially in her sincere version of “Little Lamb;” and she owns the stage, both backstage and in the spotlight, in various burlesque stripteases. Young Louise is played by Milla Liss, also a familiar young face at the Goodman, Paramount and here at the Marriott, as well. Unlike several young actresses who’ve played this almost thankless role, Milla is an accomplished singer/dancer and she’s been given opportunities to shine a bit more in this production.

This show is filled with scenes that are sparkling gems. Certainly, one of the highlights of any production of “Gypsy” is Act II’s “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” The show-stopping number features three striptease troupers who show Louise that talent isn’t a necessity if one chooses to become a stripper. This how-to song is sung and danced hilariously by three of Chicago’s finest character actors: the exquisite Emily Rohm as balletic Tessie Tura, Leeanna Rubin as dazzling high-voltage Electra, and the majestic and masterful Sawyer Smith as a belting, real bugle-blowing Mazeppa. Smith also plays a very, very funny Mr. Goldstone in the first act.

The ensemble is overflowing with talent. New York performer J’Kobe Wallace makes his Lincolnshire debut as gifted singer/dancer Tulsa. His eloquent version of “All I Need is the Girl” practically brought down the house opening night. He’s soulful, stylish and sings beautifully. Miss Medina’s contribution to this song-and-dance number is also as emotional and honest as any Shakespearean soliloquy, as she imagines herself in the arms of her teenage crush.

This scene is just another of the productions polished gems. In fact, every creative contributor, from including Ryan T. Nelson’s expert musical direction to Brad Haak’s polished nine-member band; from Stephanie Klemons’ spellbinding choreography to Theresa Ham’s gorgeous and colorful costumes: they all help make this production a truly polish presentation.

Each musical number and dramatic or comic scene outshines the next. From the effervescent “Let Me Entertain You,” sung by the children and their grownup versions, to Rose and Herbie’s gorgeous duet, “Small World,” sung when first meeting backstage, this is a production that’s filled with sincerity and realist characters feeling everything that life offers. Truly, Everything’s Coming Up Rose this Autumn at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre, and it shouldn’t be missed.

Highly Recommended