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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

Also see John's review of Recent Tragic Events

Rebecca Finnegan, Jess Godwin and Mick Weber
Porchlight Artistic Director Walter Stearns has told me his company intends to eventually produce all of Sondheim's musicals. Gypsy, though Sondheim contributed only lyrics (to music by Jule Styne), is still considered a "Sondheim musical" by most, as it concerns the sort of nuanced, morally ambiguous characters that inhabit his later works. Originally produced on Broadway in 1959, it's also very much a representative of the "golden age" of musicals, combining the requisite elements of a star role, standards, and high production values. That it represents such a turning point in musical theater history —successfully representing two such different schools - makes it an essential piece to see and know.

Important as it is, though, its demands make Gypsy a daunting project for a company to take on. Not only does it require an investment in a large number of 1920s and Depression-era costumes that cannot be faked – including everyday apparel as well as the types of costumes that would have been seen in vaudeville and burlesque —it requires an actress capable of playing one of the toughest, best-known roles in the genre. Porchlight's production scores in both those regards, and can boast the added bonus of strong performances in the key supporting roles as well.

Rebecca Finnegan, who created a shrewd and calculating Mrs. Lovett in Porchlight's 2004 production of Sweeney Todd, is a sensational Rose. Good as she was as Mrs. Lovett (and before that as Joanne in Porchlight's Company), this role gives her the chance to play layers and nuance. It's a challenging part because Rose never wants others to see the reality behind the perceptions she's eager to create. The earth may be crumbling beneath their feet, but she still insists they believe that "everything's coming up roses." If acting is all about playing the things that characters feel but don't say, this is a part that requires consummate acting.

The acting in this show is made even more of a challenge by Arthur Laurents' spare book —actors must fill in between the lines with body language, tone and facial expression. If they slip for a few seconds and go into autopilot we lose the meaning and disconnect from the characters. Stearns and his cast take the drama of this story as seriously as if it were a nonmusical. Finnegan's "Small World" is sung here as if it were dialogue, and makes a good case for Rose's ability to win over Herbie in short order. Similarly, small decisions in Finnegan's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" reconcile the dichotomy between this peppy anthem and the very dark turn of the plot it accompanies. Choices like when to appear to be thinking to herself, or when to be turning to Louise and Herbie to convince them of Louise's potential, help Finnegan land this amazingly challenging standard and dramatic moment. To the surprise of no one who's heard her sing, Ms. Finnegan can belt out the songs without any trouble. Her pitch is perfect enough to be computer-generated and her volume (to borrow a phrase from This is Spinal Tap) goes to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Complementing Ms. Finnegan, who is building quite a reputation in Chicago, is a new face on the local scene that got a lot of attention for her role of Queenie in the Bohemian Theatre Company's production of Lippa's The Wild Party this past summer. Jess Godwin, a recent college graduate, plays Louise for Porchlight. Vocally, the part sits comfortably in her range and she gives gorgeous readings of the songs. Physically, she's slender (and appears to be tall), allowing her to transform from a tomboyish Louise to a stunning Gypsy. Mick Weber (the only Equity member among the cast) is a suitable Herbie, and Jeny Wasilewski finds the laughs in Dainty June. Sean Hunt, a newcomer to Chicago, makes Tulsa the type of small town boy that might have been persuaded to join Mama Rose and her troupe, but with the singing and dancing skill to do better.

Sadie Bramlett and Shelby Hyman easily look like younger versions of Wasilewski and Godwin —with hair coloring and proportional heights to match. Though the young Ms. Bramlett is a strong singer, she and Ms. Hyman capture the feeling of kids pushed into performing by a stage mom. How much is acting and how much is reality is unclear and entirely irrelevant.

Like Rose, Porchlight somehow manages to meet the physical demands of the piece on presumably limited resources. Someone in the company must have had her gift for negotiation in order to pay for the spectacular costumes designed by Bill Morey. Music Director Eugene Dizon and his six-piece band successfully reduce the score without losing the feel of the period-evoking orchestrations, and the production does quite nicely with only three farmboys instead of the original seven. The unit set by Christopher Ash works well for most settings and makes effective use of the small stage at the 147-seat South stage of the Theatre Building, leaving enough room for Kevin Bellie's clever choreography. Speaking of the size of the theater, I'll repeat my wish that Porchlight would forego amplification. In this space, Finnegan and company need it about as much as the Gulf Coast needs rain.

Given the emotional stakes of this piece —covering such themes as parenthood and the desire for recognition - one might be tempted to view Gypsy as more theater than musical, though it's hard to say that about a show that's given us such standards as "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Together, Wherever We Go." The strong acting and direction of this Gypsy make a case for it as theater, and for Porchlight's desire to present musicals that are as dramatically and intellectually challenging as the non-musical dramas presented by other nonprofit companies in the city.

Gypsy will be performed at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:45 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through October 30, 2005. Tickets range in price from $27-$30 are available at the box office, by calling 773-327-525, or through Ticketmaster.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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