Review: `Gypsy’

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 14, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Simon Saltzman on Broadway

A major and a minor musical classic have arrived on

Broadway. The minor classic, "Nine" turns out to be a major

event, while the major classic "Gypsy" is a disappointment.

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The Roundabout Theater is all about reviving and hopefully

revitalizing classics of the American Theater. Let’s give it a 9.5

for this first Broadway remounting of "Nine." Although it

has only been 21 years since "Nine" first appeared on Broadway,

this overtly sensual musical proves intoxicating enough to have inspired

its director David Leveaux. Leveaux, whose direction of "Electra"

starring Zoe Wanamaker excited Princeton’s McCarter Theater audiences,

has with this — his first musical effort — not attempted to

mimic the more dazzling but also more self-conscious artiness that

marked Tommy Tune’s original direction. His staging is, nevertheless,

quite effective on its own terms and probably more accessible than

was the first production.

The 1982 Tony Award-winning musical, inspired by Federico Fellini’s

autobiographical film "8 1/2," has as its most unique asset,

a surrealistically conceptualized mise en scene, a landscape filled

with lusty and luscious women, and a melodic, full-bodied score with

operatic pretensions by Maury Yeston ("Grand Hotel," "Titanic").

To Leveaux’ credit, "Nine," with its psychologically propelled

episodic book about a director’s mid-life crises by Mario Fratti and

Arthur Kopit, seems much less confusing than it was before. Its numerous

flashbacks, stream of consciousness affectations, and fantastical

postures are still quite impressive, but they no longer seem to be

drifting about in the vapors of a Venetian spa. The cast is, however,

consigned to wading barefoot through water in the opulent "Grand

Canal" scene.

This production which began life at London’s Warehouse, is hardly

revisionist. But more importantly seems to be closer in its dramatic

spirit to Fratti’s original play "Six Passionate Women," in

which a Fellini-like director fends off a parade of imposing women.

Fratti has taken umbrage at his program credit, which states "translated

from the Italian." The text is, as he told me, mainly his, with

a few additional scenes written by Kopit. Evidently there is an amicable

understanding between the two writers.

For all the handsome production values contributed by Scott Pask’s

handsome silvery unit setting and Vicki Mortimer’s ravishing and revealing

costumes, it is the presence and performance of Antonio Banderas,

in the role of director Guido Contini (originated by the late Raul

Julia), that pilots the action to perfection. Banderas, who is making

his Broadway debut, proves an excellent choice — both dramatically

and vocally.

That the Spanish-born actor was a member of the National Theater of

Spain before he was discovered by Hollywood accounts for his accomplished

stage presence and the authority that he brings to both his singing

and his character.

As the revered Italian film director preparing to start a new project

whilst anguished by past indiscretions and future insecurities, Banderas

embodies Guido’s roguish nature with a compelling boyish innocence.

During the course of his stay at the spa, Guido is not only visited

by some of the most manipulative, bossy, and loving women in this

life, he is also tormented by the memories of the most seductive and

conniving women he has known.

And what better way is there for these women of all ages and sizes

to first appear in Guido’s mind than to see them all slowly descending

a narrow circular staircase, each step and movement calculated to

define them individually. And what more endearing way for the director,

currently at an impasse in his creativity, to confront his artistic

block and a near tragic act than by regressing to his youth, as a

nine year-old (William Ullrich).

As Carla, Guido’s undulating mistress, Jane Krakowski may go through

the prerequisite erotic contortions the role requires, but she also

frames her sensational, often emotionally direct, performance with

an entrance and an exit that is calculated to stop your heart. Notwithstanding

her breathtaking presence and the parodic delight with which she sings

the hilariously erotic "A Call From the Vatican," it is her

descent and later upside down ascent from and into the rafters wrapped

in a sheer drape that is guaranteed to make your heart skip a beat.

Broadway legend Chita Rivera’s role, as Liliane La Fleur (for which

Liliane Montevecchi won a Tony), Guido’s anxious film producer, has

been expanded, but somewhat awkwardly. Despite stopping the show expectedly

with a tango performed with Banderas, and with a gloriously performed

"Folies Bergeres," Rivera is asked to flirt with members of

the audience. It looks forced and outside the frame of the show.

No performance is more sharply defined, or filled with more natural

sensuality, that that of Mary Stuart Masterson as Luisa, Guido’s long-suffering

wife. Myra Lucretia Taylor, as the voluptuous tarantella-singing whore

who introduces sex to the young Guido; Mary Beth Peil, as Guido’s

radiant mother, and Laura Benanti, as Claudia, Guido’s former, but

still beguiling protegee, are three more wonderful memories to cherish

in a show that is chock full of them. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

Nine, Roundabout Theater at Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230

West 49 Street, New York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

$50 to $100. To August 10.

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Review: `Gypsy’

Within seconds after musical director Marvin Laird picks

up his baton, 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 (OK, so

you prefer Leonard Bernstein’s more highfalutin’ "Candide").

Know this, however, that those who do go to this "Gypsy" will

hear, probably for the very last time, the sound of 24 musicians in

the pit (thanks to the concessions made during the recent strike).

That alone is worth the price of admission.

What is troubling, however, is the otherwise excellent director Sam

Mendes’ lackluster staging of what is considered the most witty, pungent,

and dramatically solid piece of work in all of musical theater. You

could call this the "King Lear" of the 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.

Unfortunately Bernadette Peters, one of the treasures of musical theater,

is as unsuccessful in capturing the essence of the plum role of Rose

as she was two seasons ago in "Annie Get Your Gun." That Ethel

Merman originally created both roles does not automatically rule out

the potential for other interpretations. Rose, in particular, has

been empowered by such diverse personalities as Angela Lansbury, Tyne

Daly, Bette Midler, and Betty Buckley.

While Peters is a natural for embodying Rose’s more vulnerable side,

she doesn’t have the vocal authority or dramatic heft to deliver Rose

as a monster mom with a pervasive neurotic side. With admirable intentions

apparent, Peters tries hard to aggressively confront Rose’s crusty

edge, especially in the more tentatively played early scenes. But

she seems unable to carry Rose beyond the songs to suggest the desperate

and formidable dramatic arcs that propel Rose.

We are in Peters’ corner, as she affords her own special and endearing

quality to "Some People," and to the duets "Small World,"

and "You’ll Never Get Away From Me." It is with the more demanding

"Everything’s Coming Up Roses" and "Rose’s Turn,"

that Peters’ voice sounds strained and unable to capture the electrifying

resonance those climactic songs need.

Coming up roses is not only Peters’ problem. Tammy Blanchard

doesn’t quite stir up the full emotional eddy that can make the untalented

Louise a heartbreaking character whose disdain for her mother is offset

by her astonishing success as an indifferent stripper.

Without tampering with the text, I do commend Mendes for taking this

"musical fable" a little closer to the grittier side of life.

Mendes, the former artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse

and whose revisionist "Cabaret" is a long-running hit on Broadway,

seems hard-pressed to make the musical’s dramatic points as well as

the parade of musical sequences resonate with a real commitment to

this musical’s needs. At least, the pace doesn’t drag over the course

of this three-hour show.

What I found most interesting was the coarser-grained nod to reality

given to the three over-the-hill strippers, played with the expected

horn-blowing, electrifying, and balletic gusto by Heather Lee, Kate

Buddeke, and Julie Halston. Another plus is the appealing personality

and humanity that John Dossett brings to the role of Herbie, Rose’s

persistent and patient lover. As Tulsa, David Burtka makes his dance

in the spotlight — "All I Need Is the Girl" — one

of the more shining moments in the show.

I suppose that the sets and costumes by Anthony Ward cover the obligatory

tacky and tangy terrain of the 1920s and 1930s. But it’s the insightful,

painful, and show-stopping dramatic elements that we miss most in

this "Gypsy." Before she makes another bad choice, will one

of our young talented composers please write an original show for

the terrific and unique Miss Peters: one that is designed to bring

out her most precious and incomparable qualities. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

Gypsy Shubert Theater, 225 West 44 Street, New York. Tele-Charge

at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. $60 to $100.

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