If you like your Mamas Rose to be of the old school — the Ethel Merman type of stage mother, you might say, as distinct from the more nuanced, needy, or psychologically revisionist kinds of Mama — then Klea Blackhurst's classic interpretation of the greatest character in that musical masterpiece "Gypsy" will be your kind of Mama. The orchestra has rarely sounded louder at the Drury Lane Theatre. But neither brass nor wind nor errant cell phones are anything close to a match for Blackhurst's wide pipes, which belt out those Jule Styne tunes and perfect Stephen Sondheim lyrics with enough force, mastery and sheer force of will to blow half the traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway back to the city from which it ventured. Gimmicks are one thing; this kind of technique is another.
Blackhurst's Rose — and let's face it, you're going to "Gypsy" for Rose — does not change much based on those around her. A lot of actresses treat the song "Rose's Turn" as a moment for a breakdown. It would seem such. But Blackhurst does not really care to go there. Her Rose knows how to do one thing, which is to push her kids. Blackhurst leaves her depths unprobed.
Yet, paradoxically, the other striking thing that Blackhurst brings to the big suburban table here is a certain humility — and although this actress is famous for her Merman cabarets and tributes, this part is all Blackhurst. Unlike the recent Broadway Roses, she offers up a minor-league, small-town woman unafraid to be pathetic, and I don't mean grandly pathetic. At one point in Act 2, I was suddenly struck by how well Blackhurst revealed that if Rose was not doing what she cannot help but do, disastrous as it may be for girls and for Herbie, the man who loves her, her life would be unbearably dull. In the last Broadway revival, you saw a glamorous, complex woman who could have been a star herself. In this show, you get Rose with no such possibilities and whose only other choice would kill her spirit. As was the case with Susan Moniz's Sally in the recent "Follies" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, you see the unbearable horrors of the everyday that should turn any of us into a Rose, if we only had the guts. And it makes the show.
Director William Osetek has staged his Broadway-quality (but very much Chicago-style) "Gypsy" as a vaudeville show itself; the dominant scenic element in Martin Andrew's fine design is a spinning gold proscenium. It is not a wholly original idea, but it executed exceptionally well, albeit a tad underpaced in some transitions on Thursday's opening. Thanks especially to the knockout Cheryl Avery, who plays the stripper Mazeppa, and Matthew Crowle, a skilled tapper and a just-selfish-enough Tulsa (the resonant choreography is by Tammy Mader), the famous specialty numbers deliver a great bang for the buck. (A bevy of talented kids also are part of that.)
Yet this is neither a flashy nor a sentimental production; David Kortemeier's very moving Herbie, his stomach ulcer pushed to the fore, is clearly hanging on for his bare life to some possibility of a compromised happiness.
Andrea Prestinario, the hugely talented Chicago actress on a formidable current roll, makes a fascinating, vulnerable Louise. She is a very different kind of actress than Blackhurst — much more in the moment and remarkably able to depict character through her own relationship with her body. You don't see them as chips of the same block, which can work with this show. But Prestinario gets us to the same spot in the end: you see a stripper who never had much talent and who doesn't really enjoy it despite her protestations to the contrary. But what was she going to do? Maybe her square-jawed mama did us all a favor in the end.
When: Through April 1
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$46 at 630-530-0111 and drurylaneoakbrook.com