First, I’d just like to say, E. FAYE BUTLER AS ROSE!
But we’ll come back around to that. In the meantime, a few words about Gypsy: A Musical Fable, the classic show with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, getting a strong-to-the-point-of-raucous revival now from Porchlight Music Theatre.
“Suggested,” as the credits state, “by Memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee,” Gypsy is a loose biography, tracing Louise Hovick’s real-life trajectory from awkward chorus kid, backing precocious little sister June in the family vaudeville act, to an unlikely stardom as the thinking man’s stripper of Broadway burlesque. Far more than that, though, it’s the tale of Louise and June’s utterly obsessed mother, Rose—the woman who pushed, prodded, threatened, cajoled, tricked, and lied to everybody, including herself, to put her girls in the limelight and keep them there, however desperately they hated it.
The story starts in the early 1920s and visits the Hovick girls year by year, as they grow older while continually performing the same cornball act. (A running gag has Rose freshening up her original “newsboy” concept with farm- and Spanish-themed motifs, only to leave the original “extra-extra-hey-look-at-the-headline” lyrics and dance moves intact.) Crowned with a cloud of curls, June is a proto-Shirley Temple nearly a decade before the real one was born, doing an act that’s dimple cute but also creepily sexualized (“And if you’re real good / I’ll make you feel good”). The future Gypsy, meanwhile, adopts a kind of tomboy drag, the better to hide among the chorus boys with whom she’s been lumped. Along the way they pick up a surrogate dad in the form of Herbie, their manager. A radical departure from the usual theatrical stepdad, he’s a sweet guy who honest-to-God loves Rose.
Gypsy being a narrative built around well-known historical figures, you’d think verisimilitude would dictate that the roles of Rose, June, and Louise always be cast with white actors approximating the North Dakota German and Norwegian stock from whom the originals were descended. Certainly, that’s the way things fell out over the course of 20 major stage productions—as well as a movie and a television special—since Ethel Merman stamped her persona on Rose in the 1959 premiere. Even the version that ran in Singapore five years ago featured a Euro-American lead.
But that convention has started to break down, and the change can’t be attributed to the Hamilton effect, either: Leslie Uggams is thought to have been the first black Rose, in a Gypsy done at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in 2014, the year before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster premiered off-Broadway.
Uggams’s matriarch presided over an ethnically mixed family, including a black June and a white Louise. Genetics play out more forcefully in the current Porchlight production, directed by Michael Weber. All three of the Hovick women are black here, as is Rose’s father (J. Michael Jones). With a white actor (Larry Baldacci) playing various authority figures, from a stage manager and an impresario to Uncle Jocko, the hilariously acid star of a children’s talent show (per Chuckles the Chipmunk in A Thousand Clowns), everything appears to be in place for a Gypsy designed to explore the dynamics of race on the American stage during the first half of the 20th century.
No such Gypsy materializes, though. The breaks Rose and her girls catch don’t seem better or worse than those of any other troupe run by a maniac, white or black. Nobody scorns the Hovicks, forces them to enter theaters through a “colored” entrance, or confines them to the chitlin circuit. The multiracial chorus kids come across as one big, albeit underpaid and not entirely happy, family. If race matters at all in this staging, it’s to demonstrate that Gypsy has crossed a cultural line. That it’s entered so far into the American canon that it’s beyond biography and impervious to petty conventions. That it’s accrued enough resonance over half a century that it’s no longer a showbiz tale, but one about children, parents, and unexpected transformations.
And thank God for that, because I’d hate to think mere verisimilitude might’ve kept E. Faye Butler from playing Rose. Recent Roses have tended toward a certain delicacy: Uggams, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone. Butler takes her all the way back to Merman. Her Rose is one great, ferocious growl—the human embodiment of guts, grit, starch, brass, and spunk, not to say loneliness, pain, and compulsion. As the Porchlight folks well know, since they’ve put her name over the title, Butler by herself is worth the price of admission.
Yet she’s far from by herself. José Antonio Garcia is poetically hapless as Herbie. Dawn Bless, Honey West, and Melissa Young are a collective hoot as Louise’s mentors in the art of the ecdysiast. Aalon Smith conveys a deep frustration as the grown June, and Izzie Rose a perfect (and therefore somewhat disturbing) charmer as the Baby June. Daryn Whitney Harrell takes a while to metamorphose from Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee, but when she finally bites back at Rose she’s convincing. v