Patti LuPone triumphs as Mama Rose
NEW YORK — There is no musical-theater performer more determined than Patti LuPone.
Her drive can invest a character — whether it's Eva Peron, Norma Desmond or Mrs. Lovett — with an intense theatricality that is thrilling to watch.
And those thrills are present in City Center's overwhelming revival of "Gypsy," the "King Lear" of musicals. "Lear" because its lead character, Rose, the tyrannical stage mother to end all stage mothers, dominates the show just like the mad monarch does in Shakespeare's play. And, come to think of it, both works deal with parents who have serious issues with their children.
For those who came in late, "Gypsy" is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque stripper who brought glamour, sophistication and humor to the art of disrobing in public.
Yet the show focuses on Rose, the larger-than-life woman who pushes her there, a tyrant of the first order who craves, but never gets, her own moment in the showbiz sun.
LuPone doesn't shrink from Rose's obsessiveness, but the actress makes you understand the almost pathological compulsion that makes her shove her two daughters — first June and then Louise — into the spotlight.
LuPone knows how to act the part of Rose and to sing it, too. And she has some potent memories to compete with. There's the original, of course: Ethel Merman, whose performance has been kept alive by the 1959 production's superb cast recording, and, most recently, the 2003 Broadway revival starring Bernadette Peters as a coy, more sexily manipulative Rose.
Yet this new production manages to hold its own, accomplishing something quite difficult. It does equal justice to Arthur Laurents' book, possibly the best ever written for a Broadway musical, and to the rich, flavorful score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim.
Laurents, who also directed this revival, never lets his obvious affection for the bygone era of vaudeville — before it was killed by the talkies — turn sentimental. That affection is present in Styne's music, too, brash yet melodic, and Sondheim's tough-minded and often character-driven lyrics.
A parade of sharply drawn supporting characters makes "Gypsy" more than a solo turn, and Laurents has cast the show with care. Consider the wonderful Boyd Gaines. He elevates the character of Herbie, Rose's loyal yet long-suffering beau to leading-man status. He and LuPone have a complete rapport and bring a real dramatic edge to a relationship that can't survive Rose's single-mindedness.
Then there is Rose's prickly dealings with her daughter, Louise, the ugly duckling who would grow up to become the swanlike Gypsy. Laura Benanti displays a touching vulnerability — not to mention a lovely voice — as the insecure daughter, a girl always in the shadow of her mother's favorite, June. And in their eventual confrontation, Benanti rises to the challenge of a faceoff with LuPone.
Several numbers in "Gypsy" are almost impossible to ruin. Louise's introduction to the fine art of stripping — "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" — never fails to stop the show. As a trio of over-the-hill performers, Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel and particularly a deadpan Marilyn Caskey, deliriously find all the laughs.
"Gypsy" originally was directed and choreographed by the legendary Jerome Robbins. And nowhere is his contribution more invaluable than in the heartbreakingly romantic "All I Need is the Girl." It's sweetly sung and danced by Tony Yazbeck, while in the background a starry-eyed Louise mimes a partnership with him that will never happen.
Still, in the end, "Gypsy" is LuPone's show, most dramatically in "Rose's Turn," the stunning musical soliloquy that ends the evening. It's here where Rose pours out her true feelings, letting the rage and frustration of a stymied life explode. And LuPone's powerhouse delivery is dynamite.
"Gypsy" is the first in City Center's "Encores! Summer Stars" series, productions beyond the less complicated concert versions of musicals it presents earlier each year. Judging from the success of this initial offering, which runs through July 29, let's hope they make it an annual event.