Gypsy

Review by Adam Blair

Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee
Directed by Sam Mendes; Choreography by Jerome Robbins, additional choreography by Jerry Mitchell
Starring Bernadette Peters, with Tammy Blanchard and John Dossett, and featuring Brooks Ashmanskas, Kate Buddeke, David Burtka, MacIntyre Dixon, Julie Halston, Heather Lee, Michael McCormick, Maureen Moore, William Parry, Kate Reinders, Heather Tepe and Addison Timlin
At the Shubert Theatre, New York City

Just before seeing the current revival of Gypsy, I stopped in at the big Virgin Megastore in Times Square, where the original cast album section had all four versions of the show: the 1959 original with Ethel Merman, as well as revivals starring Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and now Bernadette Peters. It struck me that three major revivals in 44 years puts Gypsy in the same major league as musical theater heavyweights like My Fair Lady and Oklahoma, as well as such sentimental family faves as The Music Man and Peter Pan.

What is it that keeps attracting top theater talents (and audiences) to this show? Musical theater fans immediately start counting off: a rousing score by Jule Styne; resonant lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim; an effective, hard-working book by Arthur Laurents; Jerome Robbins' evocative choreography (reproduced in this revival with additions from Jerry Mitchell). It's a backstage musical that really lets you see the hard work, the dreaming and the sheer, crazy luck that goes into the making of a star, yet it's also broadly funny, especially when the action moves from vaudeville to burlesque in the second act.

For the actresses tackling "Mama" Rose, no doubt the attraction is the sheer scope and scale of the part. Rose is an Everest originally designed for an undisputed star, and a role that still demands a knock-'em-dead performance for Gypsy to work. There was lots of excitement surrounding Bernadette Peters' announcement that she, too, would climb the mountain, but lots of snickering as well - the eternal ingénue, possessed of a powerful voice but projecting an often childlike demeanor, was going to play the ultimate stage mother/monster? This wasn't a fantasy like Into the Woods, where Peters' wonderful performance as a wicked witch played on the contrast of coolly malevolent lines emanating from a baby face.

Peters and director Sam Mendes (Cabaret on Broadway, American Beauty on film) have solved the apparent miscasting problem by creating a Rose who is scary but recognizably human - and all the more compelling for being so. Peters' Rose is restless, relentless, manipulative and needy. Think she's just a creature of the stage, a campy icon? She's a soccer mom screaming on the sidelines and then flirting with the coach to get her kid more playing time. She's a frustrated mom ferrying her kids to piano, dance and voice lessons, when the kid would rather be vegging out in front of the TV or just hanging with her friends. I've met Roses, or milder versions of her. We all have.

At the performance I attended, Peters started out a bit uncertain, with ragged breath control that made her ballads play better than her belting, Mermanesque numbers. In compensation, she brought a warm, welcome and very grown-up sensuality to Rose. In the "Small World" duet with Herbie (John Dossett), who will rapidly become both Rose's lover and an agent for her daughters' cornball vaudeville act, Peters uses a strategically crossed leg to seal the deal.

By show's end and "Rose's Turn," when Rose reveals what we've known all along - that she wants the stardom she claims to have been seeking for her daughters - Peters has the audience - and the show - in the palm of her hand. This is a woman who is really only alive at center stage, who only exists between the stage door and the footlights. It takes a stage veteran - and former child actress herself - like Peters to find the human core of this Rose.

Human she may be, but is she a good mother? We're only watching the show Gypsy because older daughter Louise eventually becomes famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. It literally happens before our eyes in this production, with Tammy Blanchard growing from gawky, self-conscious teen into confident, sexy star material. I realize that it would have been too downbeat to create a show about someone who never became any kind of a star, and yet if you look at Gypsy it's all about how close the characters always are to failure.

And by today's standards, Rose's actions nearly qualify as child abuse. Rose pushes both June and then Louise into the spotlight, and the latter into stripping, despite the fact that neither really wants to be there. The girls' "If Momma Was Married" duet (with Kate Reinders' June joining Blanchard's Louise) makes clear how much they hate their respective roles (eternal cutesy-poo babyhood for June, unappreciated second banana for Louise). "Did you ever feel like you didn't have a sister?" June asks Louise. "Mama did that." It's a heartbreaking line.

I wouldn't want to see a radical rewrite of Gypsy where the child welfare authorities threaten to take Rose's kids away from her, though it might be interesting. Let's see, Rose would be played by drag queen Lypsinka, sampling from all four cast albums; Herbie would be a hand puppet, and the kids' vaudeville act would be done facing away from the audience, to John Cage music. Nah.

This more traditional production is strong enough to encompass all the tensions that drive the story forward. Mendes reveals the humor in the show (bravos to the three strippers - Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and Julie Halston - who tutor Louise in the basics of bump-and-grind in the surefire "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" number). It also beautifully preserves the happy-sad nature of Gypsy's ending. Louise, now burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, has gained a new appreciation of what drives her mother (and drives Louise crazy). Rose borrows her daughter's fur and they leave the theater together - but not arm in arm. Rose turns around to give the theater - and the audience - a final look. She's still alone, but all eyes are on her, and that's the way she likes it. That's the way she needs it.

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