Don Quixote dreamed the impossible dream. Fantine dreamed a dream of times gone by. Pontius Pilate dreamed he met a Galilean. Mama Rose dreamed of a prophet cow. Musical theater has brought many dreams to the stage, but few dreams can match the power and verve of “Gypsy.” Williams Street Repertory has brought Mama Rose’s dreams to Crystal Lake’s Raue Center for the Arts.
Experts, and critics, have hailed “Gypsy” as the greatest piece of American musical theater. The show features music by Jule Styne, lyrics by the increasingly mainstream Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. The story itself loosely is based on the memoirs of the famous striptease artist Gypsy Lee Rose, but her story has been refocused on her mother, Rose (Amanda Flahive).
Mama Rose’s singular purpose in life is to make one of her children, the almost-talented June (Mya Berg and, later, Shaina Summerville) or the untalented Louise (Delaney Wittlich, later, Willow Schneider), into a vaudeville star. To help promote her children, Rose lures the good-hearted Herbie (Joe Lehman) to return to showbiz and work as their agent.
When June leaves the business for love, all of Rose’s ample hopes fall upon the inadequate shoulders of Louise. As with many stories where success is the only outcome, things do not go as planned. Rose eventually becomes so desperate for the spotlight, she allows her child to enter into the art of failed vaudeville. In a perverse turn of fate (nearly as preserve as the song “Let Me Entertain You” turning from the little girl’s theme into the grown Louise’s striptease mantra), Louise finds legendary success in her new calling and evolves into the infamous Gypsy Rose Lee. Even though her older daughter finds the fame and social standing Rose long desired, in the end, Rose still is seeking her moment in the limelight.
Thanks to director/choreographer Mark R. Mahallak and musical director Mike Potts, Flahive takes the audience on a rollercoaster. Her Rose transforms from the her playful “Small World” to her heart-wrenching take on the belter’s anthem, “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” Rose’s swings are made wider by comparison to the consistency of Lehman’s Herbie. The two strike nice chemistry to help drive central romance in the story. No well-trained actor wants to appear to be a bad actor, but Schneider and Summerville strike that dangerous balance by playing talentless performers with skill and consistency.
Many of the scenes bring dynamic energy (“All I Need is the Girl”), frenetic dancing (“Broadway”) and the bawdy humor (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”) that made the show famous. Just as Rose and her family tramped the country looking for their break, the supporting characters in “Gypsy” similarly are transient and are fortunate to be in two or more numbers. There is a nice display of young talent (Garrett Hershey, Savannah Lyon, Daniel Marable, Aaron Stone and Emerson Tait) and veteran chops (Teresa Arnold, Jake Stempel and Sarah Weinstein).
One of the dangers of a “book musical” is balancing the wide range of locations the script demands with a consistent pacing to maintain the energy of the show. Scenic designer Adam Liston’s limited set served its purpose well suggesting multiple locations, from boarding houses to an impressive front-stage/back-stage unit. The troubles came with some long changes between scenes that robbed the show of the needed momentum and made a long Act 1 a little longer. Eric Watkins’ subtle light design found moments to highlight, while the live sound mix meshed the singers and live orchestra members with clarity. It was clear if any one designer had fun on this production, it was costume designer Lisa Hale. There were enough sequins, sparkles and feathers to outfit the next three Super Bowl halftime performances, which is to say there were just enough sequins, sparkles and feathers for this show.
Williams Street Repertory’s production showed why “Gypsy” is one of the most produced and revived productions in the long history of Broadway. It is an amazing mixture of eye and ear candy that only gets better with time.
While a dream may fade with the morning light, there is no fade to Mama Rose’s dream or “Gypsy.”
• Anthony Walker earned his Master of Fine Arts in theatre at Western Illinois University in 2004. He has taught English, theater and speech for more than 15 years. He has been the theater director at Woodstock High School for 11 years.
WHEN: Through Nov. 1
WHERE: Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake
COST & INFO: Musical produced by Williams Street Repertory, loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist. Schedule: 8 p.m. Oct. 16-17, 23-24, 30-31; 3 p.m. Oct. 25 and Nov. 1. Tickets: $32.50, $38.50. Tickets and information: 815-356-9212 or www.rauecenter.org.