Chicago Shakes to stage ‘Road Show’ and ‘Gypsy’ (cue the requisite dream-casting)

Time Out Chicago announces that Chicago Shakespeare Theater will produce that American musical comedy classic, Gypsy, along with Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show, a show that got one of its many starts at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre under the name Bounce. Both shows will be directed by Gary Griffin, who’s had back-to-back success with Sondheim at Shakes the past two seasons (Follies and Sunday in the Park with George were both box office and critical hits).

I’m sure many will roll their eyes at the mention of Gypsy. It’s not a show suffering from lack of regional productions. However, it is a show that is rarely done well — because so much of it rests on assembling an amazing cast, from top to bottom. Often productions focus on finding a knock-em-down Rose, with the remaining players seemingly assembled as an afterthought. It sure felt that way in Drury Lane’s 2012 production, which featured a fine, old-school performance in Klea Blackhurst and a supporting cast who just seemed to be acting around her. What made the Patti LuPone Gypsy experience so amazing was not just LuPone’s Tony-winning performance, but that she was matched by Laura Benanti (Louise/Gypsy) and Boyd Gaines (Herbie), who redefined these roles. This trio of equally strong performances launched that production into the stratosphere.

That said, let’s dream-cast Rose, Gypsy’s mother of all stage mothers:

Hollis Resnik: Resnik scored a major career highlight in Griffin’s Follies last year, winning a Jeff Award for her steely performance of “I’m Still Here,” so it would make sense if she were to team up with him again for this show. Petite, soft-spoken and sly, Resnik would make a fascinating Rose. She’s not a bulldozer belter in the LuPone/Merman tradition, but she can hit her mark with grand theatricality when needed. She’s also very good at playing wounded souls, which might lend nicely to an emotionally manipulative Rose.

Caroline O’Connor: Like Hollis, Caroline hit it big with Griffin’s Follies, winning a best leading actress in a musical Jeff Award last season for her spitfire take on Phyllis Stone. Caroline has experience playing Rose, having starred in a regional production about 100 miles outside of London last year. True, while the reviews for her Rose weren’t stellar (and the production never made it to the West End as planned), I feel the compact and triple-threat O’Connor has an amazing Rose up her sleeve — if she has a strong director supporting her.

Barbara Robertson: While Rose has huge songs (and, God love her, Robertson isn’t a belter), the role really requires an amazing actor who can seamlessly switch from charming and lovable to relentlessly demanding and unforgiving. The venerable and fearless Robertson is such an actor, and I’d love to see what she could do with this role. She proved a delightfully unexpected Desiree in Shakes’ A Little Night Music back in 2002, also directed by Griffin, so I think her Rose could prove astonishing. Plus, if the gravel-voiced Tyne Daly could score a career high playing Rose, so can Robertson.

Shannon Cochran: Shannon blew me away when I first discovered her in the first national tour of August: Osage County as Barbara Weston. So, she’s got the chops and stamina. I also never knew she could sing until I caught her captivating and sensual Desiree in Writers’ Theatre’s A Little Night Music. I’d imagine her Rose could be a real man trap.

Oh, yeah. Road Show. I saw Bounce (an early iteration of Road Show) at the Goodman back in 2003. And it was probably one of the most confounding things I’ve seen in Chicago. So much talent (Sondheim, bookwriter John Weidman, legendary director Hal Prince, a stellar cast) resulting in such ho-hum, head-scratching results. I recall at one point, during the show’s hesitant second act production number “Boca Raton,” a set piece got stuck (I was sitting far left so could see into the wings) and the cast just had to come out onstage and perform without aid of the multi-level set piece. It, needless to say, it was a cluster. Not unlike the rest of the show.

So, I’m eager to see a) how the show has changed since its Goodman days, and b) what Griffin does with it in Shakes’ intimate upstairs space. I do think staging it small will be in the show’s favor. The story (which I gather hasn’t changed that much) isn’t as epic as Sondheim and Weidman seemed to feel it was at the Goodman. Rather, it’s a simple story about two brothers chasing the American dream. We don’t need large set pieces to get stuck in the wings — we need clear storytelling.

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