Gypsy is my favorite show. I’ve seen dozens of performances and productions. I can confidently say I know this show inside and out.
That is, until I saw E. Faye Butler as Madame Rose in Porchlight Music Theater’s arresting production.
Butler has always been a force. For decades she’s been stopping shows – either as the star, supporting roles or in solo acts. She’s a performer’s performer. She knows how to deftly set up an emotional moment and knock it out of the friggin’ park.
Rose seems a logical choice for a musical comedy performer of such skill and experience. But: Butler is African American, and despite a Rent or Hamilton every decade or so, the theatre is slow to evolve.
But, as the unflappable Butler’s indicated in recent concerts, she’s ready to play the role if anyone would produce it.
And thank goodness Porchlight Music Theatre took the bait – and ran with it. This isn’t just a paint-by-the-numbers Gypsy to serve as a means for Butler to be Rose. This is a one-of-a-kind staging that goes down as one of my favorites. Director Michael Weber has truly rethought the piece from the ground-up, with his star’s energy as the guiding focus. Just like Butler, this production is unfussy, bold, and brassy.
For example, Butler’s entrance is staged to clearly state this ain’t your grandmother’s Gypsy (I won’t give it away). And there’s a novel reworking of “Little Lamb” that takes the song to another level. I also delighted in the staging of “Small World,” where Rose seduces Herbie (the steadfast José Antonio Garcia) to come out of retirement and serve as an agent to her children’s act. Weber has smartly deployed a giant, spinning proscenium arch (scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec) to frame various scenes and demarcate the “backstage” and “onstage” worlds that comprise the show. In this number, Rose is “onstage” singing to a reluctant “offstage” Herbie. And, you guessed it: by the end of the song, he’s on her side.
Daryn Whitney Harrell does wonderful things with Louise/Gypsy – one of the most deceivingly difficult roles in the musical theatre canon. While I think she could blossom a bit more in the transformation sequence, she more than provides a deft foil for the ball-busting Butler.
And Aalon Smith as Dainty June (Jillian-Giselle and Isabella Warren play Baby Louise and Baby June, respectively – and are adorable) sinks her teeth into her moments, giving real dimension to what could easily become a one-note role.
I’d also be remiss not to call out the fantasic stripper trio: Dawn Bless (Mazeppa), Melissa Young (Tessie Tura), and the legendary Honey West, who doubles as Miss Cratchitt and Electra.
But back to Miss Butler. She is the reason for the season. Never have I seen a Rose that’s so unabashedly ferocious and funny – and swinging between the two extremes like a prize fighter. The woman is fearless. Case in point: On press night, during the transition from Gypsy’s dressing room to Rose’s turn, a giant six-foot tall poster of Gypsy Rose Lee fell off a set piece, landed on Butler, and slid into the middle of the stage. The audience gasped, Butler slowly turned around, looked down, and proceeded into the classic monologue leading into Rose’s Turn. When it came time for Rose to say, “I made you!,” Butler firmly pointed down to the poster and OWNED. IT.
And then she proceeded to shimmy and mock the poster throughout the number, as if it were staged that way all along.
THAT, my friends, is a pro.
I don’t think I’ll see a more thrilling performance of this number as long as I live.
“Gypsy” plays through November 25 at Ruth Page Center for the Arts. More info here.