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Chicago by John Olson

Gypsy
Ravinia Festival

Also see John's review of The People's Pinocchio

Gypsy
Patti LuPone
If there's any truth to the story that Arthur Laurents has previously blocked Patti LuPone from playing Mama Rose, he was depriving himself of one of the best Roses ever. This is a part she was meant to play ... a role you'd believe could have been written for her if you didn't know she was only eight years old when Laurents, Jule Styne and Sondheim were writing it. She can hit and hold the high notes with all the power and vibrato of Ethel Merman and interpret the heck out of the lower range with the sensitivity of Bernadette Peters. The songs suit her style so perfectly you'd swear you had heard her sing them before. With backup by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Gemignani, I'd venture to say the score has never sounded better.

Ms. LuPone's take on the character is somewhere toward the softer end of the scale ... much closer to Peters than to Rosalind Russell. It's a sympathetic reading: an initially gentler Rose who gets harder the deeper she gets into the tough world of show business. She still has her own agenda for pushing her kids, but in her interactions with Louise and June appears to genuinely love them. When she pushes Louise onstage to strip, there's regret along with desperation. While the Ravinia productions are said to have notoriously short rehearsal times, you might suspect Ms. LuPone has been rehearsing this role privately for years because she nails the part so perfectly.

She's surrounded by a strong supporting cast, beginning with Jessica Boevers (In My Life) as Louise. Her girlish voice (which gives a nice reading of "Little Lamb") makes her believable as a teenager, yet she has the acting chops to make her character age from a young teen to a young lady. She's a plucky Louise and captures both the roughness and newfound sophistication of the stripper Gypsy that's referenced in the script. Jack Willis is a loud, earthy Herbie that seems a suitable match for LuPone's Rose. A real find in this production is Jen Temen as June. Ms. Temen, a senior at the Cincinnati College Conservatory, gives June star quality in her pitch-perfect vocals and dancing agility, and manages to be a sympathetic kid sister to Louise as well. Leo Ash Evens does the honors as Tulsa quite nicely.

Director Lonny Price is by now the king of staged concert musicals, and though this Gypsy is still more "staged" than "concert," he's given it a slightly more presentational staging than some of his previous work at Ravinia. While in the past he's placed his cast on platforms inside the orchestra, this time they perform on the lip of the stage entirely in front of the Chicago Symphony, perhaps acknowledging the stature of the Chicago as one of the world's leading orchestras. It makes the staging more two-dimensional than in a traditional theatrical production, but it's appropriate to the vaudeville milieu of the piece.

Another departure from some of Price's past efforts is that he's working to give Gypsy a faithful and respectful reading and has mostly eschewed any showy personal directorial touches. The single exception is that he's added a brief and unnecessary prologue which sets up the action as Gypsy's reminiscences. Mostly, though, Price has focused on getting strong performances from his cast - well-serving this piece that is widely considered to be a strong play on its dramatic merits even apart from its considerable musical pleasures.

Gypsy
David C. Hall, Kenneth-Michael Glass, Richard Henzel, Patti LuPone, Leo Ash Evens
and Jen Teme

For that matter, the songs could not be more pleasurable than in the hands of this cast and the symphony. The demands of the character sometimes force Rose to be played by an actress who can sing well enough, but to simply to hear "Small World" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" sung by a singer of LuPone's stature is a major treat, as is the opportunity to enjoy "Together, Wherever We Go" courtesy of such performers as LuPone, Boevers and Willis. "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," always a showstopper, is sensationally performed by Derin Altay, Debra Watassek and especially Jane Blass. Ms. Blass, who's done fine work in non-Equity productions, is an imposing Mazeppa, sporting a voice so deep it could move the earth.

Jule Styne, for whatever reasons, is not a composer who is often performed by symphony orchestras or in concert venues. It's fitting to see him receive this treatment here, however posthumously, and all the more appropriate that it would be in the Chicago area, where he got his start as a jazz musician in the 1920s. In an evening that leads off with the orchestra performing the Overture and taking a bow following it, one could argue that "Overture to Gypsy" has finally arrived as a concert piece.

Musical and dramatic pleasures are complemented by the visual design as well. Tracy Christensen's multitudinous costumes capture the period and color of the 1920s and 1930s and are easily Broadway caliber. The scenic design by Broadway veteran Tony Straiges (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) uses a few key elements effectively: a trunk labeled "Gypsy Rose Lee" transforms into flats for various settings, bare door frames set boundaries of rooms. The concert stage is framed by a false proscenium with Reginald Marsh-style illustrations of an audience in theater boxes, topped with an elegant red curtain.

Even the program notes deserve special mention. Todd E. Sullivan provides a thorough detailing of the real lives of Rose, Louise and June as well as a concise history of the show.

Ravinia's Gypsy and its star performance deserve to be seen and heard widely. Ravinia's Passion (with LuPone, Michael Cerveris and Audra McDonald) moved on to a heralded and televised production at New York's Lincoln Center. Let's hope for at least a similar, if not better, future for this one, ideally including a recording that could possibly be the definitive one for this great score.

Gypsy opened Friday, August 11 and will be performed through August 13, 2006 at the Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL. For more information visit www.ravinia.org.


Photos: Jim Steere/Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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