Back to show

Marriott Theatre Gets Everything Right with Emotional Showstopper ‘Gypsy’

The role of Mama Rose in Gypsy is about as iconic as they get. It is a role that requires a lot of the performer entrusted with it, as that they are the driving force of the musical from beginning to end.

It’s easy, then, for a grand star like Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, or Patti LuPone to cast a large shadow over the rest of the production. And, there is certainly nothing wrong with a star vehicle.

From the sheer energy and determination that she pours into such numbers as Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn, it’s clear that Broadway veteran Lucia Spina has invested herself fully to put her character firmly in the spotlight and exceed the expectations of everyone in the audience for Marriott Theatre’s grand and thrilling production of the Gypsy playing through October 15.

Spina hits all the right notes with her powerful and expressive voice. She nails all the right emotional moments with superb acting chops. And she offers a well-rounded, fully developed character complete with attributes, flaws, and all the grey areas in between.

But this is not a one-woman show with some backup dancers. In this production, all the stars shine bright. There is not a moment of stage time that isn’t wonderfully compelling and emotionally provocative.

The story follows Madame Rose, the most blatant example of a stage mother as there ever has been. Fueled by a feeling that she was never given the opportunity to live up to her own potential, Rose is bound and determined to turn her daughter Baby June into a child star.

With a cutie-pie Vaudeville act akin to Shirley Temple Rose pushes for Baby June to become the star she herself never became. Along for the ride is second fiddle daughter Louise.

Louise lacks the natural looks and talent of her sister, but she has an unwavering desire to help fulfill all of her mother’s crazy schemes and dreams without question. Not receiving any fair level of adoration, Louise craves her mother’s approval with unfettered dedication. There is nothing she will not do to please her mother – no matter how old she gets or how much her mother treats her as a tool.

Rose lives with a distorted worldview, and she forces this alternative reality on her daughters. One of the saddest things I have ever witnessed on stage was a teenage Louise celebrating her 10th birthday year after year for so long that she doesn’t know her own age.

Gypsy is inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee – a well-known burlesque performer who first achieved fame in the late 1920s. The memories focused extensively on her mother Rose.

It was developed originally as a vehicle for Merman, who earned a Tony nomination for the role when it premiered on Broadway in 1959. That production was directed and choreographed by the great Jerome Robbins.

It has since had several highly successful Broadway revivals. It is just the kind of moving script, powerful score, and platform for great dance that works so well at Marriott.

Nathaniel Stampley won a Jeff Award for his starring turn in Man of La Mancha at Marriott, and has generated many other accolades in a career that has seen him star on Broadway in such monster hits as The Lion King, Cats, Porgy and Bess, and The Color Purple.

He plays Herbie, Rose’s love interest. Herbie wants to marry Rose. Rose wants Herbie to be Baby June’s agent. They’re both supposed to get their way. However, while Herbie leaves his sales career to help fulfill Rose’s dreams of stardom for June, Rose always has an excuse not to get married.

Stampley is an incredibly gifted actor with a velvety smooth voice. He is one of the many bright spots to shine alongside Spina. He shows off the self-sacrificing dutiful love of a man committed to wanting a family with the woman of his affections. With equal depth, he demonstrates the pain and frustration of finally realizing the level of narcissistic illness inside his beloved that could let her sell her own daughter into the seedy side of entertainment to appease her own need for attention.

Lauren Maria Medina plays Louise, the second-choice daughter of Rose. She goes from an innocent child who never complains of neglect to a burlesque star taking off her clothes for money to try to satisfy her mother’s emotional needs. It is a masterful acting performance that spans many ages and maturity levels, but never loses sight of the sad little girl that was never good enough in her mother’s eyes. And, never will be.

People rave about Stephen Sondheim as a composer, and rightfully so. But I first fell in love with him as a lyricist. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, with a book by Arthur Laurents. The two also collaborated on my favorite musical of all time, West Side Story. Music is by Jul Styne who also came up with the notes for Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan, Funny Girl, and Bells Are Ringing.

One of my parents suffers from delusional thinking similar to the character of Mama Rose. It led to constant gaslighting with results similar to Louise not knowing her own age. Like Rose, my parent wanted my sibling to fulfill their own unfulfilled aspirations. And when there is a situation of one sibling being the golden child, the other child lives an affection-starved existence.

I cannot stress how dramatically this kind of abuse can affect a child. It can lead to things like mental illness and other problems for both the golden child and the neglected one. While I try to serve as an example of what a disabled person is able to accomplish, it doesn’t negate that I live with certain mental illness challenges directly attributable to being on the receiving end of this treatment.

I applaud director Amanda Dehnert and the cast for displaying an understanding of the real effects that parents can have on their children when they focus on their own needs and desires. The narcissist will use anyone they have to in order to pursue their own dreams. The cast and artistic staff should be respected for their embrace of authenticity.

Marriott’s Gypsy is a well-rounded show. It is not all just high drama and showstopper solo songs for Rose. There is comedy gold in the script, that the talented cast plays perfectly. And the choreography by Stephanie Klemons is well-suited for the space and perfectly highlights the talents of her dancers.

To call any of the performers merely dancers would be a gross misrepresentation. Both the adult and child ensembles are loaded with dancers of impeccable talent who are equally talented as vocalists and actors. We now live in a world where being a triple threat is expected and the Marriott cast lives up to that expectancy.

Louise’s sister June is played with the utmost brilliance by Tori Heinlein. She has all the tools in her kit to mesmerize in song and dance, but also demonstrate the pressures of being forever forced to live someone else’s dreams.

The child versions of Louise and June are expertly matched to their adult counterparts by Milla Liss and Elin Joy Seiler. It is always astounding to see children with this level of skill and maturity.

Among the ensemble J’Kobe Wallace oozes talent as Tulsa, one of the young men in Mama Rose’s Dainty June act. He has incredible charisma and remarkable abilities. His number All I Need is the Girl will go down in the records as one of the best performances of the year for Chicago musical theater. It would be all the more stunning if Tulsa had a more period appearance, but I’ve always been a stickler for striving for authenticity when possible.

The other young men backing up Dainty June include Kevin Kulp, Arik Vega, and Christopher Kelley. They are all immensely talented. Vega’s character Yonkers is a clear audience favorite, and rightfully so. His accent is pure fun.

Another group of audience favorites consists of Emily Rohm, Leeanna Rubin, and Sawyer Smith as a trio of gimmick-yielding strippers. Smith’s trumpeting is comic gold, and their dance kicks are beyond impressive.

Music direction is by Ryan T. Nelson, who can always be counted on to achieve brilliance. The orchestra is in excellent form under conductor Brad Haak.

Gypsy is a show really scripted for a proscenium stage, but Marriott always manages to amaze in the company’s ability to translate seemingly anything into a theater-in-the-round masterpiece.

Director Dehnert won me over with her concept from the very opening. The staged overture is the most beautifully conceived opening of a show I have seen in as long as I’ve been reviewing theater. The magic is repeated in the second act when Louise gives in to the transformation from shy girl in the background to Gypsy Rose Lee the most famous stripper of all time.

Helping Dehnert and Klemons translate Gypsy into the Marriott space is some masterful work by lighting designer Jesse Klug. Sound design is by Michael Daly, scenic design is by Collette Pollard, and media design is by Anthony Churchill. Costume design is by Theresa Ham, wig design is by Megan E. Pirtle, and properties design is by Sally Zack.

The children’s ensemble includes Elliot Angsurat, Lucian Gutfraynd, Jordyn Helvie, and Jojo Nabwangu. The adult cast includes Cedric Young, Daryn Whitney Harrell, Steve O’Connell, Joseph Primes, Laura Savage, and Ayana Strutz, with swings Ben Brougton, Mandy Modic, and Madison Sheward. From top to bottom, they are all amazing.

Gypsy proves yet again why Marriott is the pinnacle of Chicago musical theater. Make plans to see this stunningly good musical and be moved in a special way.