“Gypsy,” now at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre, is loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs with everlasting songs by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. It has been around as a musical since 1959. But unlike other musicals, it doesn’t seem long in the tooth, as it’s a timeless piece because of the subservient-turned-antagonistic relationship between a daughter and her mother.
Director Michael Weber starts the evening getting the audience warmed up to the vaudeville era by playing classics from stars such as Al Jolson and Abbott and Costello.
He has kept true to the story, but makes full use of the entire stage as well as stage left and right. No movement, no set piece, no prop is not used or placed without purpose. As much as there was to absorb, there wasn’t a time anything ever was a distraction from the action of any scene.
The story revolves around a desperate stage mom fighting to get her daughters onto bigger and bigger stages during the waning stages of vaudeville, as she dotes on one while ignoring the other. There is some humor as the act Rose creates may change costumes and themes, but never changes in spite of Rose’s girls getting progressively older (kudos to casting).
As she loses her grip on control of her daughters, she begins to lose her grip on reality.
Act I is a teapot on a burner set on low that boils over into an enthusiastically engaging Act 2. A vast majority of the scenes must be carried by Rose played by the versatile, uber-talented E. Faye Butler. She is made for this role and is glorious. You can see how she relishes the experience, belting out timeless classics such as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as if her soul is on fire.
June is Rose’s darling, the star of Rose’s created act everything revolves around. For the majority of “Gypsy,” June is played by the enigmatic Aalon Smith. Smith truly holds her own as she packs a personality as solid as her singing voice.
The older daughter, Louise/Gypsy, is Rose’s pack mule. Louise does everything that needs to be done for the traveling show to have even a modicum of success, from costuming to being the front of a cow.
Her growth in the plot is the thread keeping the whole story from unraveling. While Rose is a character any actress would drool over playing, it is the role of Louise/Gypsy providing the growth any production needs to succeed.
Louise/Gypsy is played by Daryn Whitney Harrell. This role gives an actress the opportunity to really display her chops, and Harrell has them. Her singing is excellent, but the important work she has to do in movement and gestures toward her overreaching mother, whether directly or indirectly, is expertly acted.
The manager’s role of Herbie is one that must be accomplished while balancing the moves of devotion and anger yet not command scenes. Well done by José Antonio Garcia. Also, a hearty round of applause goes out to the child actors as well as the talented newsboys and hilarious showgirls.
The set is magnificent. Each player pushes and pulls set pieces as if the pieces are on smooth glass. For this complicated set, it was an admirable feat.
For any lover of musicals, this version of “Gypsy” is a must-see.
The entire cast, with a special nod to Butler, is a treasure. “Gypsy” is not leaving the theater soon. Because of popular demand, it has extended its run at the Porchlight Music Theatre to Dec. 29.
• Rick Copper is a writer, photographer, storyteller, part-time actor and comedian with a framed master’s degree from the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and a loose Certificate of Completion sheet of paper from Second City’s improv program. Published works include “Crystal Lake: incorporation of a city 1914-2014.”