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Marriott’s ‘Gypsy’ is more than a Rose by any other name

Taking in a new production of the iconic musical fable, Gypsy, many seasoned patrons arrive wondering who they’ll bring home as their memory of the night.

Will young Louise’s singing-out as she transforms into the world-famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee put forth a fresh ingénue to follow? Drury Lane’s and Music Theater Works’s productions did just that in recent years with performances by Andrea Prestinario and Lexis Danca, respectively.

Or might tonight’s stage fully fully to Louise’s mother, the mommie dearest of all stage mothers? Certainly that was the case when Chicagoland treasure E. Faye Butler owned and transformed the role of Mama Rose in Porchlight’s pre-COVID presentation.

Well, his reviewer says, neither. Rather, as the good Lord said, perhaps we’re all just a bit better off for instead being given the opportunity to contemplate the muted, Depression-influenced perspective this production offers.

Make no mistake, in no way does this disparage the talents of Broadway veteran Lucia Spina (Rose) or Lauren Maria Medina (Louise), the recent Carnegie Mellon graduate who starred as Maria in Marriott’s West Side Story. In fact, it’s a testament to their acting chops that enable Amanda Dehnert’s unique reimagining to succeed. (Hopefully, it need not be said , but just in case: book by Arthur Laurents; music by Jule Styne; and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.)

It begins as the overture plays and a grown-up Louise’s looks around a dilapidated, shuttered vaudeville theatre, conjuring memories of her coming of age on the vaudeville circuit, under the thumb of a brash mother monomaniacally determined to make her sister a star. Considered by some to be the perfect American musical, its delicious, well-known songbook features “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “If Momma Was Married,” “Together Wherever We Go,” and a host of others. All of these make up one of the very best overtures in the American musical theatre canon. As the overture ends, the story proper begins, and Marriott’s talented cast beautifully sing, dance and tell the story in flashback.

Featuring a host of characters that can easily be overplayed, Dehnert’s take somehow normalizes them all—from the overbearing stage mom to seemingly-always-on daughter June (Tori Hernlein, with Elin Joy Seiler as Baby June) and doormat boyfriend Herbie (Broadway veteran and Chicagoland stage favorite Nathaniel Stampley). A standout dance performance by J’Kobe Wallace as wannabe solo act Tulsa in “All I Need is the Girl,” is an Act One highlight. So, too, the comedic foils of Act Two strippers Tessie (Emily Rohm), Electra (Leanna Rubin) and Mazeppa (Sawyer Smith) are appropriately played for every laugh. Additional musical highlights to those already noted include the tender Rose and Herbie duets on lovely ballads “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.” And while his role as Herbie doesn’t quite provide the deserved showcase for Stampley’s magnificent voice, Chicagoland patrons have an opportunity to experience the splendor in a Marriott solo show on October 15th. Details and ticket information are here.

Indeed, this production is a first-rate, professional Gypsy. But patrons should expect their parting thoughts to center not on a signature performance, but instead on matters more poignant: What does it mean when a mother will trade her daughters’ innocence to pursue escape from a sad and difficult world? It means a naïveté that Louise never completely sheds. It means Rose’s continual justification for near-abusive obsession. It challenges patrons to consider where this is happening in today’s the sad and difficult world. Because as Rose says, “Everybody needs something impossible to hope for.”