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Chicago by John Olson

Gypsy
Drury Lane Theatre

Gypsy
Klea Blackhurst
One of the favorite pastimes of musical theater lovers is, of course, to compare and debate the relative merits of the various divas who have assumed the role of Rose in Gypsy. And while Klea Blackhurst, the Madame Rose of this production, got her career off the ground by putting together a cabaret tribute to the first Rose, Ethel Merman, she's not yet a celebrity to compare with the likes of Lansbury, LuPone and Peters. In this case, that's a good thing, because Ms. Blackhurst carries none of that celebrity baggage that might be a distraction from the other characters or even from the character of Rose itself. Blackhurst has the chops to carry off this difficult role of a difficult woman but she doesn't overpower the show or the story and it seems unlikely most audiences will come to the Drury Lane specifically to see her take on the role.

Those familiar with Ms. Blackhurst's professional relationship to Merman's legacy may be hoping to see an imitation of the Merman Rose that was never recorded for the ages, but Blackhurst is no Merman imitator. True enough, she can belt a la Merman, with a seemingly limitless range and impeccable diction that serves the Sondheim lyrics beautifully, but overall she has more versatility and control than Merman. Blackhurst can sing softly when required, and more expressively. She has the vocal technique and interpretive skill to give a reading of Rose's songs that is a real treat to lovers of the score. Acting-wise, she's not entirely adept at managing some of the quick changes in motivation that are present in Arthur Laurents' book, but she still delivers a satisfying take on Rose as determined and pushy but likable. She's at the heart of this very fine production that establishes once again why Gypsy is so highly esteemed.

Director William Osetek and Choreographer Tammy Mader have surrounded Blackhurst with a cast and overall production that deliver the goods at every level. Early in the show, when we see a troupe of winning and thoroughly professional preteens tap dance the heck out of "Baby June and Her Newsboys," we accurately assume the standards will be high at every level. The kids are every bit as capable as the adult members of the ensemble. Supporting Ms. Blackhurst in the other lead roles are David Kortemeier as a very wimpy but sympathetic Herbie, the talented Andrea Prestinario succeeding at the difficult task of playing an untalented Louise, and Andrea Collier as a tough-as-nails June who's no baby. The three strippers are played by Susan Lubeck, Cheryl Avery and Frances Asher, and they wring every bit of humor from the classic comedy number.

The Drury Lane has gotten much deserved attention in recent years for its ambitious productions, and this Gypsy shows the sort of smart decisions that are earning such acclaim. The stage seems small from the house, but the creative team uses the space and the certainly not unlimited budget wisely. The ensemble is not huge, but here it makes sense not to be. June and Louise are backed up by only four Farm Boys, but doesn't that seem a more plausibly sized troupe for the skinflinty Rose to pull together? It seems the performer budget has been used to bring in New York leads like Ms. Blackhurst (or, for example, Gregg Edelman and Liz McCartney in last year's Sweeney Todd) and a nearly all-Equity cast behind them, rather than to crowd up the stage with more bodies than are needed.

The design team has made ingenious use of the space as well. The set by Martin Andrew has as its centerpiece a proscenium arch with its decorated side facing the audience for the "onstage" scenes and rotating to expose its rough side when the action is backstage. Settings outside the theaters—like the Chinese restaurant, Rose's father's home and the desert campground—are suggested by backdrops painted in the style of early 20th century American realists. And in an ingenious touch, sound designer Sarah Pickett creates a most realistic effect in which the jeers and later cheers of the men watching Gypsy strip seem to be coming from throughout the auditorium. The Drury Lane has paid for some terrific costumes by Melissa Torchia as well. The only thing that feels scaled-down is the ten-piece orchestra when performing the vaunted Overture and when providing the robust accompaniment to the first act finale of "Everything's Coming Up Roses." When they're doing the vaudeville numbers or even the other book scenes songs, they sound perfectly right-sized.

The overall quality of the cast, Ms. Blackhurst's generous performance in the starring role, and all these smart design decisions add up to a very smart and balanced Gypsy that demonstrates why this show is considered one of the very best of this art form. Osetek and company do a great job of telling their story and selling the many classic show tunes in the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score. It will always be fun to compare memories of the great actresses who have played Rose, but a production like this that so consistently delivers on the many challenges and demands of the show is a great reminder of how much more there is to it.

Gypsy will play the Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois through April 1, 2012. For ticket information, visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com, call the box office at 630-530-0111 or Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000.


Photo: Brett Beiner Photography

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-- John Olson



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