Gypsy/ A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Gypsy/ A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum 

GYPSY, Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre, and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, Drury Lane Oakbrook. Dating back to 1959 and 1962, these unimpeachable musicals by Stephen Sondheim--lyricist for Gypsy and lyricist-composer for Forum--confirm his genius. And happily these revivals showcase more than Sondheim's skills.

Gypsy is as much a celebration of the addictive insanity of show business as a chronicle of the checkered childhood of super stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Sondheim's crackling lyrics give Jule Styne's tunes whiplash wit and psychological heft. But however strong the story, the musical remains a vehicle for whoever plays Mama Rose, the stage mother who confuses fame with family. Ethel Merman grew the role, but Alene Robertson--now in her third turn since 1983--owns it: she grounds her showstoppers in a character as clear as hunger. "A pioneer woman without a frontier," Rose is every striver who's sick of second billing, yet Robertson now plays the role with less friction and more eagerness to please. The real dynamo wouldn't have given a damn.

Dominic Missimi's staging surrounds Robertson with tailor-made triumphs, especially Joel Hatch, down-to-earth as Rose's patient suitor; Tesha Buss as the temperamental ex-Baby June; and Julie Ann Emery, a self-effacing Louise until she blossoms into Gypsy Rose Lee.

A pure and impure comedy that's shameless and unashamed--especially in its portrayal of women--A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum marked Sondheim's Broadway debut as a double threat. Inspired by ancient Roman comedy, the fleshy farce pursues pratfalls, not big moments. Propelled by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's vaudeville-sharp script, Sondheim's supple score complements the wily shenanigans of the super slave Pseudolus.

Fueling Gary Griffin's knockdown, breakneck staging are Bradley Mott's rubber-faced Pseudolus and J. Scott Ament as his born-to-grovel fellow slave, Hysterium. Ron Keaton is the libidinous Senex; Mary Robin Roth, the Medusa-pussed matriarch; Chris Garbrecht plays a bloated warrior, and Kelly Clark an airhead ingenue. Kurt Sharp's exuberantly cheerful set suits the play like a toga, and Caryn Weglarz's costumes are a Roman riot.

--Lawrence Bommer

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