One of the great injustices of the last twenty years in musical theater has been the absence of Patti LuPone on the Broadway musical stage. Between 1987’s acclaimed revival of “Anything Goes” until her portrayal of Miss Lovett in John Doyle’s 2005 stripped down “Sweeney Todd,” Ms. Lupone’s powerful, full-throttled vocals were on display elsewhere, outside New York City. Fortunately, the fiery diva is back as the mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose, in the revival of “Gypsy.”
Patti LuPone’s portrayal is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, pathetic, and poignant. She trods the St. James Theatre stage like a wounded animal ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. Her sole intent, with equal parts bullying, threatening, cajoling, and chutzpah, is to make her daughter—first Baby June, and then Louise—a star.
But what of the voice? That powerhouse instrument that gave me goose bumps when I sat in the audience watching “Anything Goes” so many years ago? Happily, its never been better, with such classics as “Some People,” “Small World,” “Everthing’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn,” to savor. One of bonuses about the production is a full, 8-10 person, mini-orchestra with strings, horns, even a kettle drum playing the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score. Situated on the stage, behind a curtain, the production begins with the musicians out front on the bare stage lovingly running through the overture—yes, a real, honest to goodness overture. What a delight!
Supporting Patti LuPone is a first rate group of performers. Boyd Gaines is understated but forceful as the milquetoast Herbie; Laura Benati is convincing as she transforms from shy, reserved Louise to the self-assured and dominating Gypsy Rose Lee. In smaller roles are the marvelous scene stealing Alison Fraser as the self-loathing, but good-hearted stripper, Tessie Tura; and Leona Nemetz in the dual role of the boisterous burlesque performer, Mazeppa and the tightly wound secretary, Miss Cratchitt.
Even with the praise I can heap on this revival, the production did drag at some points, primarily when Ms. LuPone was not center stage. The primary culprit is Arthur Laurents’ book, which he wrote almost 40 years ago. At times the musical seems like a play with music. As it is, the show lasts almost three hours. Laurents direction could also be tighter especially when the kids are involved.
Jerome Robbins’ choreography, while not one of the high points of the production, is faithfully reproduced.
All in all, “Gypsy” is a show you do not want to miss, primarily because of Patti Lupone’s riveting performance. You just don’t know how many more musical roles are left for her on the Broadway stage.