In truth, no one was ever born to do anything - except bawl their lungs out - but Patti LuPone comes pretty damn close as Momma Rose in Jule Styne's "Gypsy."
LuPone bawls with the best of them, but realizes, to quote the show, that "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." In her case, that "gimmick" is an unassailable talent and showbiz genius.
She brought both to the St. James Theatre last night, following a three-week "tryout" at City Center in July. And though this essentially modest production has the lingering scent of a summer stockpot, its virtues are such that few will care.
There have been a procession of remarkable Roses - from Ethel Merman through Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Betty Buckley and Bernadette Peters.
Of them all, LuPone most closely resembles Merman, but she's still her own woman and her own Rose, the archetypal shrew of a showbiz mother.
What's special about LuPone is the unexpected shading and nuance - brassy one moment, grotesque the next, then pathetic, even tragic.
Merman wasn't much of an actress (though her voice could launch a thousand ships), but LuPone is, together with Lansbury, surely the most formidable actress ever to assume the role.
And what a role - and what a musical. I like it more every time I see it.
This is partly to do with Styne's engaging music and Stephen Sondheim's beautifully crafted lyrics, but the overwhelming credit must go to Arthur Laurents' book. Suggested by (but not based on) "The Memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee," it's possibly the best book ever for a Broadway musical.
Here is a story line with people - real, live people - setting it apart from such other great musicals as "Oklahoma!," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Hello, Dolly!"
Everyone - from the tired, tattered but gallant old strippers (Marilyn Casky, Alison Fraser, Lenora Nemetz) to Leigh Ann Larkin as the nicely pouting Dainty June (who in real life found fame as June Havoc) and Tony Yazbeck as Tulsa, the aspiring hoofer - comes up roses.
Along with Rose, the biggest beneficiaries of Laurents' book are Boyd Gaines' weather-beaten, rueful and delicately charming Herbie, the long-suffering manager, and Laura Benanti as the drooping wallflower Louise, who finally sings out and is transmogrified into that stripper of strippers, Gypsy Rose Lee.
Benanti is terrific, handling that transformation with more skill than any Louise I've seen, and standing toe-to-toe with LuPone in one of drama's most effective shouting matches. She also does the tease-strip bit very much like the real Gypsy Rose Lee, who I once saw heading an all-star variety show at the London Palladium.
With a grand 25-piece orchestra (not a synthesizer in peeping distance), what is there not to love?
Well, Laurents' own direction, though as crisp as Melba toast, is sometimes overemphatic (there are enough second-takes to put a movie into financial overrun) and the staging, with the orchestra at the back of the stage, looks too much like the original "Encores!" presentation.
James Youmans' small-scale settings seem budget-size for Broadway, and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes have a thrift-shop look that's only partly appropriate.
But with LuPone and Benanti aboard, who could complain? Only a critic.
Watch out, New York. Patti LuPone has found her focus. And when Ms. LuPone is truly focused, she’s a laser, she incinerates. Especially when she’s playing someone as dangerously obsessed as Momma Rose in the wallop-packing revival of the musical “Gypsy,” which opened on Thursday night at the St. James Theater.
In July, when an earlier version of “Gypsy” starring Ms. LuPone had a limited run as part of the Encores! summer series, this powerhouse actress gave a diffuse, narcissistic performance that seemed to be watching itself in a mirror. She was undeniably Patti with an exclamation point, the musical cult goddess, offering her worshipers plenty of polished brass, ululating notes and winking sexiness. But Rose, the ultimate stage mother of Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, was as yet only a wavering gleam in her eye.
What a difference eight or nine months makes. And yes, that quiet crunching sound you hear is me eating my hat. As directed by Arthur Laurents, this latest incarnation of “Gypsy,” the 1959 fable of the last days of vaudeville, shines with a magnified transparency that lets you see right down to the naked core of characters so hungry for attention that it warps them.
The notion of a bare soul only flimsily disguised is appropriate to “Gypsy,” which features a book by Mr. Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The title character, after all, is a burlesque queen, embodied here in the charming flesh of Laura Benanti, who obliges with examples of the ecdysiast’s art in the second act.
But the most transfixing stripteases are characters peeling down, by seductive degrees, to their most primal selves. What’s revealed isn’t nearly as pretty as a young Minsky dancer’s body. But its raw power should be enough to silence any naysayers (myself included), who thought that 2008 was way too early for yet another Broadway revival of “Gypsy,” which had been staged less than five years ago with a revelatory Bernadette Peters.
The 90-year-old Mr. Laurents, who directed two earlier revivals of “Gypsy” (with Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly), has had nearly half a century to ponder characters he helped bring to life. The accumulation of decades seems only to have sharpened his vision of the fractured family at the show’s center: Rose, the smothering mother determined to make a star out of at least one of her children; Herbie (Boyd Gaines), the gentlemanly candy salesman and reluctant theatrical agent who loves her; and her two daughters, June and Louise (played as adults by Leigh Ann Larkin and Ms. Benanti).
For there is very little sentimental mist here. The show’s flat, scrappy look (with sets by James Youmans and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz), relying heavily on hand-painted scrims and backdrops, summons a world with the depth of torn paper and the glamour of disintegrating curtains.
If we are always aware of the shabbiness of the cut-rate vaudeville circuit through which Rose drags her increasingly discontented brood, we are also aware of the double-edged romance with which she invests that world. From the get-go, Ms. LuPone exudes a sweet-and-sweaty air of hope and desperation, balancing on an unsteady seesaw.
Watching that balance shift is a source of wonder, amusement and even pity and terror. If in the Encores! version of “Gypsy,” Ms. LuPone seemed to be trying on and discarding different aspects of Rose as if they were party hats, she has now settled on a single, highly disciplined interpretation that combines explosively contradictory elements into a single, deceptively ordinary-looking package.
It’s as if the new wig she wears here — a ’30s-style mop of recalcitrant curls that is a vast improvement on her blunt bowl cut of last summer — had forced her to internalize her many ideas about what makes Rose run. And while Rose may be a dauntingly single-minded creature, Ms. LuPone now plays her less on one note than any actress I’ve seen.
This Rose begins as a busy, energetic, excited woman, and you can’t help being infected by her liveliness. You understand why Herbie would be smitten with her, and for once, his description of her as looking “like a pioneer woman without a frontier” fits perfectly. But every so often a darker, creepier willpower erupts, as involuntary as a hiccup.
In Rose’s two great curtain numbers, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn,” the darkness takes over so completely that you feel that you’re watching a woman who has been peeled down to her unadorned id. In “Rose’s Turn,” in particular, Ms. LuPone takes you on a guided tour of all Rose’s inner demons, from sexual succubus to shivering infant. (Be warned: they will live in your head for a while.)
A great Momma Rose is usually enough for a thoroughly compelling “Gypsy.” But this one has so much more. Mr. Laurents and his cast have applied the same careful analysis to all the major characters. As a result we become newly sensitized to “Gypsy” as a sad story of colliding desires, of people within an extended family vainly longing for love, for security, for recognition from one another. And this production makes us painfully aware of the toll exacted by repeatedly missed connections.
I have never, for example, seen a Herbie as palpably in love or in pain as the one the excellent Mr. Gaines provides.
Nor has the relationship between June, on whom Rose has pinned her highest ambitions, and the neglected Louise ever been as fully drawn as it is by Ms. Larkin and Ms. Benanti. Their duet, “If Momma Was Married,” becomes a vibrant voyage of gleeful self-discovery between two alienated siblings.
Ms. Larkin brings out the toughness in June that marks her as her mother’s daughter. (She’s hilarious furtively flashing her sex appeal behind Rose’s back.) And Ms. Benanti, in the performance of her career, traces Louise’s path to becoming her mother’s daughter out of necessity. The transformation of the waifish Louise into the vulpine Gypsy Rose Lee is completely convincing. And you’re acutely aware of what’s lost and gained in the metamorphoses.
You see, everyone’s starved for attention in “Gypsy.” That craving, after all, is the motor that keeps showbiz puttering along. And Mr. Laurents makes sure that we sense that hunger in everyone, including the delightfully seedy trio of strippers who initiate Gypsy into their art (Alison Fraser, Lenora Nemetz and Marilyn Caskey) and Tulsa (a first-rate Tony Yazbeck), a member of Rose’s troupe who dares to strike out on his own.
Styne’s score, one of the best for any show ever, is given full due by the orchestra (though I don’t see why it’s been left onstage à la Encores!). But I was so caught up in the emotional wrestling matches between the characters (and within themselves), that I didn’t really think about the songs as songs.
When Ms. LuPone delivers “Rose’s Turn,” she’s building a bridge for an audience to walk right into one woman’s nervous breakdown. There is no separation at all between song and character, which is what happens in those uncommon moments when musicals reach upward to achieve their ideal reasons to be. This “Gypsy” spends much of its time in such intoxicating air.
Stage mothers everywhere, be warned: A public relations disaster is brewing on Broadway.
Blame Patti LuPone and Arthur Laurents, respectively the star and director of the latest revival of Gypsy (* * * out of four), which opened Thursday at the St. James Theatre.
Laurents, of course, also wrote the libretto for this classic show, based on burlesque icon Gypsy Rose Lee's account of the relentless mom who tried to make her a child star. And in revisiting it, he clearly is determined to convert those who would dismiss the old-school musical as escapist fluff. This Gypsy is as serious as a heart attack, and about as subtle.
It's also campy and clamorous, by turns brighter and less buoyant than the version Laurents helmed off-Broadway last summer with the same principal actors. In that production, LuPone lent a disarming tenderness to Mama Rose, disappointing some critics who view the role as a test for an actress's drama-queen aptitude.
Those soft edges are all but gone now, replaced by a brittle, brassy exterior that melts in stormy fits. LuPone's Rose may not be incapable of love, but she's the perfect show-business monster, a shiny cauldron of frustration and ambition who remains oblivious to her children's needs until it's too late.
Rose's humanity is revealed in flashes. Her epiphany, Rose's Turn, is staged as a musical nervous breakdown, at once over-the-top and frighteningly convincing.
Other performances also blend high-octane razzle-dazzle with a sort of hyper-naturalism. Boyd Gaines brings unexpected spunk to the part of Herbie, Rose's ever-accommodating partner. As June, the more patently talented and driven of Rose's daughters, Leigh Ann Larkin has a tougher time; she's wonderfully wry in lighter moments, but distractingly overstated when the dialogue sobers up.
Laura Benanti faces, and embraces, a bigger challenge charting the evolution of June's gawky sister, Louise, into Gypsy Rose Lee. Singing the exquisite Little Lamb in the first act, Benanti, who has one of the most beautiful voices in musical theater, makes that instrument sound fragile and tentative, verging on tears at one point.
Later, with Laurents' obvious encouragement, Benanti poses a dramatic counterweight to the formidable Rose. When Louise/Gypsy finally confronts her mother, Benanti screams out, as if to remind us whom the title of this show refers to.
LuPone isn't upstaged, any more than Rose would be in her position. But the veteran actress also lets Benanti shine, showing a level of generosity and empathy that her character lacks.
Everyone remembers a great musical by its songs, but the key to a really great musical, and arguably the hardest part to get right, is the book. It needs to feed the narrative and develop the characters and their relationships without decelerating the momentum, leaving you tapping your foot impatiently waiting for the orchestra to spark up again. Watching Arthur Laurents' riveting revival of the show he wrote and premiered in 1959, it's clear that "Gypsy" has the dramatic vertebrae of a superior species. This is not your everyday canned tuner; in this production it's an incisively acted musical play with as much emotional resonance as showbiz pizzazz.
Every production of "Gypsy" inevitably is defined by the actress playing Rose, the pushy stage mother shoving her daughters from childhood through late adolescence around a vaudeville circuit that's dying out from under them, in a vain quest to feel the warmth of the spotlight she craves for herself. The equivalent of "King Lear" for musical theater divas of a certain age, the role has been filled on Broadway by Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters, whose bruised kewpie-doll fragility made her the most unorthodox fit for the Dina Lohan prototype.
In the show's fourth Rialto revival and its second this decade, Patti LuPone reverts to something closer to the traditional model of brassy nerve, indomitable strength and utter shamelessness. But like all the key performances in a production notable for the penetrating depth of its characterizations, she's never without heart.
Her Rose loves her daughters and her would-be husband, even as she remains stubbornly indifferent to the ways in which she exploits, steamrolls and sidelines them. She's driven and indefatigable yet LuPone never allows her to become a gorgon. The sad flickers of regret, defeat, weariness and betrayal -- of which she's both victim and perpetrator -- that briefly settle across her face reveal just as much about this woman as her barking orders and brusque manners. As the instantly smitten Herbie (Boyd Gaines) puts it, she's "like a pioneer woman without a frontier."
At 58 (older than any of her Broadway predecessors in the role), LuPone's voice remains a powerful instrument with an expansive range of expressiveness. In "Some People," she's jumpy and defiant as she chafes against the threat of a humdrum life. In her duets with Herbie, "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me," she melts into flirtatiousness but never jettisons her knowing edge. In "Together Wherever We Go," with Herbie and daughter Louise (Laura Benanti), she's a joyful clown.
But it's her twin showstoppers that crescendo at the close of each act that cement LuPone's performance as one for the history books. Lending credibility to Louise's claim that her mother can make herself believe anything she dreams up, Rose re-gathers her composure after the defection of June (Leigh Ann Larkin), the daughter she has tried unsuccessfully to propel to stardom. Undaunted, she turns the setback into a cockeyed triumph in "Everything's Coming Up Roses."
Despite the warped willpower evident in this number, however, it's nothing compared to the emotional tour de force of "Rose's Turn." Hauntingly backdropped by lighting designer Howell Binkley's dusty, film-noirish shadows, this shattering breakdown song both sweeps away and reinforces Rose's self-delusion that her struggle for fame was for her daughters and not for herself.
Well before popular entertainments started regularly smashing the American dream, "Gypsy" depicted a failed family unit in which no one really gets what they want. Rose is cruelly denied the spotlight, Herbie never gets the chance to be a husband, June has to sever ties in order to liberate herself from her maniacal mother, and having never fully felt Rose's love and approval, Louise must settle for the adulation of an audience of strangers, as she blossoms from untalented tomboy to stripper extraordinaire Gypsy Rose Lee.
Echoed in the tattered curtains, beat-up proscenium and cheap painted flats of James Youman's set, the melancholy textures of this story and the vanished world it depicts are beautifully etched by Laurents and a cast that wisely refuses to contemporize their approach to roles anchored in another time.
Gaines is no spineless mouse as Herbie, but a profoundly decent man with a deep well of dignity. His chemistry with LuPone is evident from their first moments together, and the scene in which he finally has to acknowledge the insurmountable obstacle of her nature and summon the strength to act is heartbreaking.
Likewise Louise's long-brewing confrontation with her mother. Benanti is enormously moving as she absorbs one hurt after another through the show, pulled along like a rag doll in her mother's wake, initially second-string to her sister and then reluctantly shanghaied into headlining. When she emerges like a butterfly -- nervously at first, then with spiraling confidence -- from her baggy, unflattering clothes into the winking sophistication and toned, willowy body of the striptease artiste, the audience is celebrating her bittersweet independence along with her.
Larkin's characterization is similarly full-bodied. Stomping around like a petulant brat, and lighting up on cue -- but with increasing resentment -- into an ear-to-ear smile, June is a sad, trapped figure, grotesque as she gets too old for her babyish role in the tacky vaudeville act, but always human. The unbalanced but nonetheless tangible sisterly bond between June and Louise is touchingly conveyed in "If Momma Was Married," while the unconventional family ties extend also to the boys that round out the act. Most prominent among them, Tony Yazbeck exhibits unforced charm and grace, channeling Fred Astaire in Tulsa's "All I Need Is the Girl."
As comic numbers go, it's hard to top the veteran strippers' instructional "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," riotously performed by cartoon-voiced Alison Fraser, bullish Lenora Nemetz and a hilarious, barely mobile Marilyn Caskey.
The physical production is not significantly different from the show's three-week Encores! run last summer. Bonnie Walker efficiently reproduces Jerome Robbins' original choreography, including the still-effective flickering fast-forward device used to age up the kids while they work the circuit year after year. Biggest surprise is the richness of the 25-piece orchestra, which does full justice to Jule Styne's marvelous score and Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler's impeccable orchestrations, and never drowns the wit and sensitivity in Stephen Sondheim's lyrics.
In a staging that's lovingly old-fashioned yet full of vitality and nuance, the most significant change Laurents has introduced is a melodramatic flourish at the end, which feels perhaps redundant but nonetheless serves to plant the focus back on Rose's tragedy and her inextinguishable dreams as the curtain falls. The writer-director, who turns 90 in July, has announced that after a breather, he'll start work on a Broadway-bound revival of "West Side Story" for next year. If his latest "Gypsy" is an indication of what to expect, I can't wait.