(l to r) Betty Buckley in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes) and E. Faye Butler in ‘Gypsy’ (Photo: Michael Courier).
Women rule the roost across the heartland this holiday season with two productions featuring unconventional leading ladies taking on iconic roles.
Tony winner Betty Buckley is headlining the national tour of Hello, Dolly!, which just wrapped up its engagement in Chicago and is headed toward warmer weather with stops in Tampa and West Palm Beach before year’s end. Also in Chicago, local favorite and six-time Jeff Award winner E. Faye Butler appears as Rose in Gypsy through December 29.
Here’s a closer look at both productions and why they’re resonating with audiences decades after they first appeared on Broadway.
Those familiar with Betty Buckley’s recent film and television roles such as Dr. Karen Fletcher in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split or her reoccurring character of Gran’ma on AMC’s Preacher might find themselves in musical theater shock. The seasoned actress is now jet-setting across the country with an ear-to-ear smile and light on her feet in this Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical about a widowed matchmaker who sets about finding her own partner for the next chapter of her life.
The lush production boasts many of the bells and whistles that appeared in the recent Broadway revival starring Bette Midler (and later Bernadette Peters). Directed and choreographed by the same team — Jerry Zaks and Warren Carlyle respectively — this Dolly exudes similar jewel-toned charm, which it needs to play large roadhouses like Chicago’s Oriental Theatre (to be renamed the James M. Nederlander Theatre in early 2019).
The production’s highly amplified sound design and scaled down orchestrations are one of the necessities of touring, but if there’s anyone who can reach across the orchestra pit (and in this case, a faux passerelle), it’s Ms. Buckley. Known for her high decibel delivery in shows such as CATS and Sunset Boulevard, she offers a more nuanced, earthy interpretation of Dolly Levi. Hers is a woman with intent, which stirs the belly when she reflects that, “For years I had not shed one tear nor had I been filled with the wonderful hope that something or other would turn out well. And so I’ve decided to rejoin the human race…”
That famous monologue leads into the spirited “Before the Parade Passes By,” made all the more powerful by suffragette imagery that adorns sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto. Fans of Ms. Buckley on social media are familiar with her advocacy efforts for social justice. The synergy of actress and character is palpable.
Of course, Hello, Dolly! is a musical comedy at its core, and Ms. Buckley earns her fair share of chuckles, helped along the way by charming co-stars that include Lewis J. Stadlen as love interest Horace Vandergelder. Mr. Stadlen is the first in this reviewer’s opinion to justify the re-insertion of the patter song “Penny in My Pocket” as the Act II opener. Fans of Nic Rouleau will get a kick out of seeing the actor in something other than The Book of Mormon (he just wrapped a record 2,500 performances). He plays Cornelius Hackl opposite Jess LeProtto as Barnaby Tucker (known as one of Broadway’s best ensemble dancers) who finally gets his chance in the spotlight.
At a recent performance, the real spotlight shined on a spirited child in the audience, who couldn’t contain his giggles during Ms. Buckley’s typically scene-stealing moment as Dolly gobbles up the remainder of her dinner before a courtroom full of onlookers. The child’s infectious laughter rippled through the audience and onto the stage, stopping the show cold. Ms. Buckley, a sparkle in her eye, looked into the audience and said, “You have a big future, kid,” after which, the audience erupted in applause. With a theater career spanning more than 50 years, her future’s looking pretty bright, too.
Hello, Dolly! on tour…
December 4 – 9
West Palm Beach
December 11 – 16
January 8 – 13
January 15 – 20
Chicago’s Porchlight Theatre Music Theatre is celebrating 28 years of producing “Chicago style” American musicals. And much like the city’s namesake pizza, the company serves up a deep dish of familiar titles and new works. Unlike its larger budget counterparts such as The Goodman or the suburban dinner theaters like Drury Lane Theatre or the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Porchlight’s intimate space at The Ruth Page Center for Performing Arts is just over 200 seats, which has the ability — when all of the creative pieces fall into place — to create a visceral evening of musical theater.
This reimagined Gypsy, directed by Porchlight’s artistic director Michael Webber, features a multicultural cast led by E. Faye Butler as Rose. The most famous stage mom of them all pushes her two daughters June (a breakout performance by Aalon Smith) and Louise (an underutilized Daryn Whitney Harrell) toward a career in show business as they play the vaudeville circuit and eventually find themselves in burlesque, much to the chagrin of their manager and Rose’s on-again-off-again love interest Herbie (an endearing José Antonio García).
Gypsy is the mother ship for musical theater matrons. Ethel Merman originated the role of Rose in the original 1959 Broadway production, and subsequent revivals have featured Angela Lansbury (1975 Tony Award), Tyne Daly (1990 Tony Award), Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone (2008 Tony Award). You can see two patterns: one of accolades, and the other of race.
This Gypsy attempts to shine a spotlight on the latter by showcasing Rose, June, and Louise as an African-American family attempting to sing and dance its way to stardom on the segregated vaudeville circuit. Real-life acts such as Matilda Sissieretta Jones (known as Black Patti or Madame Jones) had to endure sharing the stage with blackface performers and offensive stereotyping coon songs. This production doesn’t swing the pendulum that far, restrained, perhaps by Arthur Laurents’ original book.
With the exception of some insightful dramaturgical program notes, the production is fairly traditional, executed with a refreshingly diverse cast. But upon introspection, Mr. Webber’s concept resonates more deeply, which mostly has to do with Ms. Butler’s performance. Take a YouTube dive for a dozen or so versions of “Rose’s Turn,” and you won’t see a black woman in the bunch (though there is a terrific capture of Chita Rivera, so there’s that). Just the fact that Ms. Butler is playing the role holds its own kind of empowerment.
Ms. Butler’s Rose is one that pivots from flirtation to rage on a dime, and it might make you squirm. Better to ask yourself why. As we all witnessed this fall when Serena Williams flaired at the U.S. Open, the general public still isn’t ready for a black woman to lose her cool: double standard that ricochets from the tennis court to the corporate boardroom. When Rose sings, “This time for me!” at show’s end, you get the feeling it’s for a generation of marginalized black women. On a more subtle note, her riffs and stylings under the musical direction of David Fiorello, while somewhat anachronistic to the period, pay delightful homage to singers such as Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald.
This Gypsy is all about Rose, which leaves Louise’s transformation in her wake. Ms. Harrell never quite achieves the star power of her onstage mother and is hampered by choreographer Chris Carter’s underwhelming “Let Me Entertain You,” which doesn’t.
Performed on a stark set featuring a rotating proscenium, scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec welcomes us to look at Rose’s world from a constantly shifting perspective. What we see depends on our own roles in society. If we dare, we can choose to look beyond the spotlight and see Gypsy entirely new.
Porchlight Music Theatre
1016 North Dearborn Street, Chicago
Through December 29
Looking for more powerful works and performances by women? 2019 is the Year of Chicago Theater. Keep an eye out for these upcoming shows:
I Know My Own Heart
Pride Films & Plays presents the U.S. premiere by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue, inspired by the secret coded diaries of Anne Lister and her affairs with various women throughout the early 19th century. Directed by Elizabeth Swanson. (January 10 – February 10, 2019)
The Goodman Theatre presents Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play — a collision of race, class and friendship at a pivotal moment in America. (March 9 – April 14, 2019)
The Color Purple
Drury Lane Theatre presents the musical based on Alice Walker’s powerful novel. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown. (September 13 – November 3, 2019)
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and chief critic. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.