Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Gary Griffin. With Louise Pitre, Jessica Rush, Keith Kupferer, Erin Burniston. 2hrs 55mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” if you ask Gertrude Stein. The corollary in Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s 1959 masterpiece comes from another Rose: “You either got it, or you ain’t.”
One of the great creations in musical theater, often (and appropriately) compared to the role of Lear, Rose is the progenitor of the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee and the actress June Havoc. The show, based on Lee’s memoir, famously follows Rose’s imperative and ultimately alienating efforts to make stars of her children on a fading vaudeville circuit, first focusing on “Baby” June and, after June defects, on the neglected tomboy Louise, who eventually becomes Lee.
A role written for Ethel Merman, Rose is undeniably a powerhouse. Different actresses have of course found variations in the character over the years, but one thing is essential: Rose must be the play’s galvanic force. She has to be both the driver of the train and the boiler powering its engine. And as of opening night of the new revival at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Louise Pitre ain’t got it.
The Canadian actress, who earned a Tony Award nomination in 2002 for the original Broadway production of Mamma Mia!, is hesitant and diaphanous at the center of Gary Griffin’s production. She hollers, sure, but in reaction, not in taking charge. Her Rose is breathy where she should be brassy, faint where she should be ferocious. She’s struggling to keep up; even in songs like “Some People” and “Small World,” she seems to be a half-step behind the orchestra.
Which is a shame, since so much else in Griffin’s staging is top-notch, including that 14-piece orchestra playing Styne’s lushly memorable score. The production is visually sumptuous, with delightful costumes by Virgil C. Johnson and a clever set design by Kevin Depinet that manages to suggest a classic proscenium above the Courtyard Theater’s long thrust stage.
Much of the ensemble is terrific, too: Erin Burniston’s June and her tap-dancing newsboy chorus of Rhett Guter, Brandon Haagenson, Adam Fane and Joseph Sammour play their purposefully chintzy vaudeville acts with winning aplomb in the first act, while Barbara Robertson, Molly Callinan and Rengin Altay commit to their comedy as the second act’s weathered strippers who teach Louise “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
Jessica Rush’s sympathetic, yearning Louise essays a convincing infusion of self-confidence once she finally takes the stage as Gypsy Rose Lee, and Keith Kupferer makes a spot-on mensch as Herbie, Louise’s would-be stepfather who lets Rose play him like a fiddle.
Yet as Sondheim’s lyrics state in “Together Wherever We Go,” “With Herbie's vim, Louise's verve / Now all we need is someone with nerve.” A shortage of nerve in a Rose, apparently, can drain verve and vim both.