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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 14, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Gypsy'

Barely one minute after musical director Edward Strauss picks up the baton at Paper Mill Playhouse you will know why composer Jule Styne's slam-bang overture to "Gypsy" is considered by many the greatest and the most invigorating overture ever written for an American musical comedy. Long before director Mark Waldrop's dynamically centered staging of "Gypsy" is over, you will know why the forever brilliant musical has remained through the years the most witty, pungent, and dramatically solid piece of work in all of musical theater. You could call it the "King Lear" of musicals.

Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents 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. This tragic misplacement of love and energies relates to all of us. In "Gypsy" it becomes more than an entertainment: it becomes a parable.

Betty Buckley, in the plum role of Rose, successfully follows in the formidable, if admittedly unbeatable, footsteps of Ethel Merman (the originator of the role). But this recent star of Broadway's "Sunset Boulevard" and "Triumph of Love" offers us a Rose that is more visibly vulnerable and staggeringly neurotic than we have ever seen before. In my estimation, Buckley unquestionably surpasses the admiral intentions and laudable impressions of Angela Lansbury (who starred in the first Broadway revival), Tyne Daley (second Broadway revival), and Bette Midler (for television).

Buckley, who has previously starred as Mama Rose in a 1992 production at the Southern Arizona Light Opera company, may still want to confront more aggressively the role's crusty edge, especially in the more tentatively played early scenes. But her slow build quickly blossoms into an unforgettably powerful portrayal that will surely leave you limp as well as exhilarated. No one in musical theater today can top the dramatic arcs and the awesome resonance that Buckley's voice delivers. Once past the over-fussy staging and singing of "Some People" early in the show, Buckley empowers the warmth and playfulness of the duets "Small World," and "You'll Never Get Away From Me," with the same whole-hearted integrity she brings to Rose's electrifying solos, "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn."

I wish I could say everything came up roses for everyone in the cast. Deborah Gibson doesn't quite stir up the full emotional eddy that can make Louise a heartbreaking character. Seen in the light of what revisionism is doing to other musicals -- "Cabaret," "Carousel," and most recently "Oklahoma," (in London) -- Gypsy's strip numbers would benefit from a coarser-grained nod to reality.

Without tampering with the text, there is no reason why a director of Waldrop's invention couldn't take this "musical fable" a little closer to the grittier side of life. Waldrop, who directed the Off-Broadway hit "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly," seems to make every dramatic point and every triumphant musical sequence sing out with a renewed commitment to this musical classic. It may be a case of gilding the lily and padding the G-strings, but the pace occasionally drags over the course of the three-hour show.

The big surprise is the wonderful qualities Lenny Wolpe brings to the role of Herbie, Rose's persistent and patient lover. Wolpe gives us a much more endearing humanity than is generally forthcoming in that role -- and he can sing too. The hilariously precocious Alexandra Kiesman, who portrays June as a child, stops the show with her all-squeals and smiles vaudeville routines.

Michael Anania's scenery evokes both the tacky and tangy terrain. Costume designers Michael Bottari and Ron Case flaunt their flair for the 1920s and 1930s. If ever there was a musical that could hold you with its insightful, painful, and entertaining story, it is "Gypsy."

-- Simon Saltzman

Gypsy, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. $25 to $55. Through October 25.

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Long-time graduates of the bump, shimmy, and grind school of show-biz, the three strippers -- Dorothy Stanley (Tessie Tura), Jana Robbins (Mazeppa), and Anna McNeely (Electra) -- go through the same old motions. Maybe that's enough. When it comes to motion, the prize goes to Joe Machota, who plays Tulsa, the young hoofer in Rose's troupe who secretly works on his own routine, the exuberantly danced and sung "All I Need is the Girl." Liza Gennaro's choreography is standout throughout.

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