Sunday, April 6, 2008

Patti's Turn

Theater review - Broadway
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Directed by Arthur Laurents
Starring Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti, Leigh Ann Larkin, Tony Yazbeck, Marilyn Caskey, Alison Fraser, Lenora Nemetz

Performances from March 3, 2008
St. James Theatre
229 West 44th Street

Boyd Gaines and Patti LuPone (photo: Paul Kolnik)
Patti LuPone bulldozes her way brilliantly through the current revival of Gypsy, directed by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show's book. Taking on the role created by Ethel Merman in the original 1959 production, LuPone gives us a Mama Rose who is not merely the ultimate stage mother but also dangerously psychotic. She sings her two standout numbers -- the first act closer, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the show’s finale, “Rose’s Turn” -- with a singlemindedness of purpose that’s (intentionally) uncomfortable to watch and comes close to being a musical cry for help.

LuPone does delusion, and everything else, with an absolute mastery of characterization and sheer theatricality. If anyone can make Rose into the most monstrously misguided mother since Mommie Dearest and still keep the audience’s sympathy, it’s LuPone, whose powerhouse personality has carried her through shows as diverse as Evita, Anything Goes, Master Class, and Sweeney Todd. She eagerly mines the humor and the horror of Rose, and this high-wire balancing act propels Gypsy into the theatrical stratosphere.

Nearly 50 years ago, Jule Styne’s great music and Stephen Sondheim’s endlessly clever lyrics combined with Laurents’ rock-solid book and Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography to make Gypsy the ultimate American musical. Much of that remains intact in Laurents’ current staging, first seen last summer at City Center Encores! Robbins’ dances have been reproduced by Bonnie Walker. The first-rate orchestra, conducted by Patrick Vaccariello, is placed onstage rather than in the pit.

On the minus side, the sets have a cookie-cutter quality. The show's early scenes in Seattle and the intentionally bad acts that Rose creates for her daughters outstay their welcome in such meager surroundings. Yet Laurents, of all people, knows that Gypsy is character-driven, and his direction keeps those characters front and center.

Boyd Gaines makes a perfect punching bag as Herbie, whose endless support Rose takes for granted. As Rose's daughter Louise, Laura Benanti manages the difficult transition from a tomboyish second fiddle to her sister June (played as a youngster by the poised Emma Rowley and as a young woman by the talented Leigh Ann Larkin) to the sexy star stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Marilyn Caskey, Alison Fraser, and Lenora Nemetz perform their showstopping strippers’ number “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” too cartoonishly, but the charismatic Tony Yazback breathes new life into Tulsa's “All I Need Is the Girl.”

It’s because of Gaines and Benanti’s restraint that LuPone can let loose and make Rose more of a diva than ever before. Herbie’s and Louise’s musical numbers with Rose -- “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” and “Together Wherever We Go” -- perfectly delineate their relationships. Still, its title notwithstanding, Gypsy is clearly Rose’s (and LuPone’s) show.

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