Everything will be coming up roses when the North Riverside Recreation Community Theater presents its production of “Gypsy: A Musical Fable,” from April 25 through May 4.

First staged in 1959, “Gypsy” was written by Arthur Laurents with a now-classic score, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Steven Sondheim.

“It’s finely crafted,” said producer Al Meyer. “The music really advances the story.”

“It’s exceptional,” remarked musical director Michael Barr. “The flow between the book and the music is seamless.”

Director John Nasca called the show “one of the greatest American musicals.”

“It’s a staple of musical theater, like ‘Hello Dolly’ or ‘Mame,'” said choreographer Shawn Quinlas. “When I think of musical theater, I think of these songs.”

Indeed, several of the tunes, including “Let Me Entertain You” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” have become standards of American music.

“I wasn’t very familiar with the show when we started,” said assistant director Christine Rivera. “Now I can’t stop singing the songs.”

“It’s not your typical musical,” Nasca said. “Even without the songs, the story stands on its own as a dramatic piece. It’s a backstage story about theater, and it’s a true story, more or less.”

The story originally was based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, focusing on the relationship between Gypsy; her sister, actress June Havoc; and their mother, Rose Thompson Hovick.

Michelle McKenzie-Voigt plays “Mama Rose,” a role originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman. Nasca described Hovick as “the Lady Macbeth of stage mothers.”

“I think that’s pretty apt,” McKenzie-Voigt remarked. “She was a woman who was way ahead of her time. She was manipulative and charming, frustrating and impossible. She is bigger than life, and she is hell on wheels.”

In fact, it was only after Hovick’s passing that Gypsy Rose Lee wrote her autobiography, “Gypsy,” on which the musical was based. On her deathbed, Hovick’s final words to Lee were, “Wherever you go, I’ll be right there. When you get your own private kick in the ass, just remember: it’s a present from me to you.”

After Lee was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1969, she reportedly told her sister, June Havoc, “This is my present, you know. My present from Mother.”

McKenzie-Voigt said playing a role based on an actual person presents its own challenges, especially for such a larger-than-life personality.

“The musical treats her more nicely than perhaps she deserves to be treated,” she said. “But there has to be some humanity to [Mama] Rose, because if she has no humanity, the audience won’t care what happens to her. It would be easy to play her flat, but that wouldn’t serve the play or the audience. The trick is to make Rose three-dimensional.”

Bernadett York, who plays the title role of Gypsy Rose Lee, said her character presents its own challenges. A resident of the northwest suburbs, York has been active in theater since she was in fifth grade.

“I was named after Bernadette Peters, so I’m a huge theater brat,” she said.

York even went to see her namesake’s performance as Gypsy in a 2003 production of the musical. York said the role bears little resemblance to her own life.

“My mom is actually very supportive of me,” she said.

In approaching the character, “I imagine how it would feel to be neglected and manipulated,” she said. “I never knew I could cry so much. There are three scenes where I break down in tears.”

Jim Heatherly plays Herbie, the male lead in the musical, originated on Broadway by Jack Klugman. Heatherly is familiar to audiences for his role as Pseudolus in North Riverside’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.”

Herbie is a former theatrical agent seduced by Mama Rose in an effort to further her daughter’s career.

“Herbie’s your basic good guy,” Heatherly said. “He’s kind of ahead of his time in how he views women. He sees the family as a pride of lions. The female does all the work, but he is the caretaker and protector. When it comes to protecting the pride, that’s his job.”

Heatherly said he considers himself a “family guy,” but added that Herbie “puts up with a lot more than a lot of people would, certainly more than I would. He’s a much more complex character than people realize. He’s got a lot of layers. He sees Rose as a strong woman, and he ties into that.

“He comes from a family of five sisters. He was probably the oldest son, and probably the only son. He puts up with a lot, and he wants to get married and have a family. He takes a lot of crap from Rose, and he doesn’t stand up to her. It’s easier for him to go along, but underneath is this temper. If he let loose, bad things would happen.”

North Riverside Recreation Community Theater presents:

North Riverside Village Commons
2401 Desplaines Ave.
April 25, 7:30 p.m.
April 26, 7:30 p.m.
April 27, 2 p.m.
May 2, 7:30 p.m.
May 3, 7:30 pm.
May 4, 2 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and students with ID, and $7 for children under 12.  Group rates are also available. For tickets, call Andy at 343-7527.

North Riverside Recreation Community Theater struts its stuff in ‘Gypsy’