‘Gypsy,” the greatest musical of them all (well, that’s my opinion) was revived for a limited three-week run as part of the Encore Series at City Center in July, 2007. Patti LuPone was a sensation as the indomitable Mama Rose. And it isn’t as if some of the most brilliant stars of the musical theater have not tackled this formidable role. Under the consummate direction of renowned playwright Arthur Laurents, who authored the musical’s original book, this is the “Gypsy” that has been too long in coming: one that achieves not only the stellar performances it demands in every one of its well-written roles, but is one helluva production that virtually eclipses memories of all subsequent revivals. There are some of us around who may be willing to say that this is closer in spirit, if not better in some ways, to the original 1959 production that starred the legendary Ethel Merman.
This production, now in the St. James Theatre, boasts excellent sets by James Youmans and splendid costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, which amusingly evoke the 1920s and 1930s. The thrills begin with the overture that, in case you have been living on some other planet, is the most invigorating overture ever written for an American musical. (Okay, so you prefer Leonard Bernstein’s more highfalutin’ Candide). It not only works up a frenzy of response before the show begins, but is played by a 25-member on-stage orchestra under the direction of Patrick Vaccariello (you won’t hear anything like this coming from the pit any time soon).
As the curtains part for the first time, the orchestra is first seen behind two scrims. The scrims rise sequentially for the main portion of the overture only to be lowered with the arrival of the first setting. It is the stage of a tacky vaudeville house with a rotting curtain and proscenium arch that will also serve as the frame for the rest of the show.
Perhaps, what is most unexpectedly gratifying about this most witty, pungent, and dramatically solid piece of work in all of musical theater is Laurents’ direction. Could he have done a bit of tweaking here and there? Laurents keeps the show moving like the wind, a gusty one at that. He makes the dramatic points in the book scenes and in the musical sequences sharp and even brutal without compromising their often very funny and tender components. Every scene resonates with a real commitment to this musical’s needs. You could cite it as the King Lear of musicals.
Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the Jule Styne (music)/Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)/ Arthur Laurents (book) collaboration tells the oft-told tale of the proverbial backstage mother vicariously living through the careers of her daughters. The theme remains an ongoing enigma in show business. I suspect that many can relate to the tragic misplacement of love and energies that this musical show reveals so frankly. In “Gypsy” it becomes more than an entertainment: it becomes a parable.
LuPone, whose musical theater career from “Evita” to the recent “Sweeney Todd,” is known for its peaks and valleys, has again picked an Ethel Merman-originated role to show off her acting gifts and vocal chops. While it seems unfortunate that LuPone seems destined to distinguish herself mainly in revivals, it is apparent that she makes every role she undertakes her own. She has, with qualifications, excitingly captured the essence of Rose. When you consider how this role has been previously empowered by such diverse personalities as Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daley, Bette Midler, and Betty Buckley, as well as a brave try by the otherwise inimitable Bernadette Peters, it is all the more remarkable how fearsome and fresh is LuPone’s interpretation.
As a theater, screen, and TV actor of considerable versatility, LuPone’s biggest hurdle, something that she does with, to borrow a line from one of the strippers, “finesse,” is to show off Rose’s more vulnerable side through an otherwise tough facade. LuPone has both the vocal authority and dramatic heft to deliver Rose as a monster mom, but also as a needy neurotic. LuPone takes great chances by taking the songs sometimes above and beyond the desperate and formidable dramatic arcs that propel Rose. While such songs as “Some People,” and the duets “Small World,” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” allow LuPone to prove how she can assume Rose’s mellower side, it is with the more demanding “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn” that she expectedly captures the crusty neurotic edge and the electrifying resonance these songs need.
This is the rare “Gypsy” where you can expect everything to come up roses. Laura Benanti is intensely affecting and stirs a genuine emotional eddy as the untalented Louise, a heartbreaking character whose disdain for her mother is offset by her astonishing success as an indifferent but glamorous stripper. What a delight to see the three past-their-prime strippers played with such hilariously concerted touches. Showing the naive Louise that it takes more than a simple bump and grind to be a success in burlesque are Alison Fraser (who George Street audiences will remember from “Gunmetal Blues” in April, 2006), as the klutzy ballerina Tessie Tura; Lenora Nemetz, as the trumpeting Mazeppa; and Marilyn Caskey, as the over-the-hill Electra. With no visible expenditure of energy, Caskey brings down the house with her blase executed turns and blinks.
Another plus is the appealing personality and humanity that Boyd Gaines brings to the role of Herbie, Rose’s persistent and patient lover. As Tulsa, Tony Yazbeck makes his dance in the spotlight — “All I Need Is the Girl” — another one of the many shining moments in the show. Bonnie Walker has reproduced the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.
But as reproduced to a peak of perfection, “Gypsy” has mainly been afforded the kind of insightful, painful, and show-stopping dramatic punctuations that confirm it the classic that it is. HHHH
— Simon Saltzman
“Gypsy,” St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street. $42 to $117.00. www.telecharge.com.