Yes, what some would deem the theatrical event of the year, the decade, or perhaps even the generation has finally come to pass: Patti LuPone starring in Gypsy in New York. Approaching City Center, where the classic Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical fable is being presented by the Encores! Summer Stars series through July 29, you can feel the coruscation of occasion and a charge in the air that will set most show lovers shivering: One of Broadway’s greatest living belters is finally taking on the role originated by one of Broadway’s greatest-ever belters, Ethel Merman.
And LuPone never, ever lets you forget it.
If your idea of theatre is all LuPone, all the time, you will love this Gypsy. If, on the other hand, you’re expecting fresh psychological insights into Rose - or, for that matter, any insight into her at all - this is not the show for you.
From overture to curtain call in this Nascar race of a production, which Laurents himself has directed, LuPone plays LuPone playing Madam Rose with all the ferocity aficionados had every right to expect she’d bring to the part. Her blaring truck horn of a voice and a smoldering-steamroller manner would seem ideal for creating a historic portrayal of the stage mother to end all stage mothers, who’s abandoned by one daughter and who responds by turning her other daughter into the Queen of the Striptease, Gypsy Rose Lee.
Stories have been haunting the Rialto for years about Laurents’s feud with LuPone; he reportedly prevented her from playing the part in Sam Mendes’s 2003 Broadway revival (which eventually starred Bernadette Peters), and only a late reconciliation led to this production at all. On paper, at least, LuPone has come out on the winning end of one of the hardest-fought battles in contemporary theatre history.
So it’s all the more curious that LuPone has dared to put no unique stamp on the part. Shying away from the likes of Rosalind Russell’s lizard-tongued film Rose, Bette Midler’s brash-but-bright take in the 1993 TV movie, and Peters’s china-doll sexpot, LuPone plants herself firmly and unapologetically at the center of a world in which nothing and no one else exists.
This is not necessarily an ill-conceived take. Rose does admit, after her stunning nervous breakdown of a musical tour de force, “Rose’s Turn,” that everything she claimed to do for her daughters she truly did for herself. But with her portrayal here, LuPone raises self-involvement to an art form, and not in ways that reveal many new facets of the unthinkable monster inhabiting the vaudeville circuits.
Rather than eradicating the inflections and mannerisms that typically define a Patti LuPone Performance, the star revels in them all as they alone are enough to define Rose. Chewing on lyrics as if they were Thanksgiving dinner, making precisely articulated arm motions completely disconnected from lyrical content, dissolving lengthy sustained notes into haunting screams of physical pain at the end of both acts, and forging a connection with the audience before acknowledging anyone else onstage, LuPone does not display any particular desire to become Rose - she’s trying to make Rose become her.
Merman has often been accused of this sort of behavior, so LuPone is in good company. And her towering inferno of a belt certainly suggests Merman: Songs like “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” have all the vocal frills and flourishes that separate true theatre singers from the pop warblers populating so many of today’s stages. But when she lurches her jaw or body so far into a note that you fear she’ll shatter or crumple into a heap, or (more frequently) plows through a song as though she’d just swallowed rocket fuel, it never feels like Rose’s angry fires are singeing your eyebrows or that the selfishness of the character is superseding that of the actress.
In fairness, some of this might be Laurents’s doing. The crumbling proscenium arch and tattered curtain that are major fixtures of James Youmans’s set suggest a deconstruction of the show-biz aesthetic in line with Sondheim’s own musical Follies (which Encores! presented last season); LuPone’s performance could be seen as an ironic comment on how theatre blurs the boundaries between performer and role. Certain other elements - Larkin’s positively Brechtian take on June, a burlesque house featuring uncharacteristically realistic scenery, a stuffed dog and a bunraku lamb treated as real by the human cast members - do lend some credence to this theory.
What they don’t do is cohere into a fully functional evening. Mendes’s controversial mounting made the tearing down of walls between onstage and backstage the central theme around which everything else revolved. Even when that production faltered (and it was not perfect), you knew you were seeing a tightly realized vision in a way you don’t here.
Laurents’s version (which incorporates, to gleaming effect, Jerome Robbins’s original choreography, recreated by Bonnie Walker) is lodged somewhere between traditional and overhaul, a chaotic mix of old and new that satisfies on neither level and lacks both emotional highs and invigorating new depths. The result often feels underrehearsed (the dancers and the orchestra, under Patrick Vaccariello’s baton, could use more drilling) and conceptually sloppy, with bits and pieces of sets, costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), lights (Howell Binkley), and even people strewn about the stage like knick-knacks in a tornado-tossed living room, with few hints of what should be tidied up or thrown away.
None of the actions LuPone’s Rose takes, though, resonate with the desperate devastation they’re capable of summoning. LuPone delivers each as a fait accompli, part of a logical progression toward personal deification well in keeping with the Greek tragedy figure to whom Rose is often (and not without reason) compared: Medea. LuPone’s Rose is connected to her Greek tragedy roots by a thin string of fate that forces her to live out her greatest fear - uselessness - without being able to alter her course.
In that way alone, this is a Rose we haven’t seen before: one who vanishes into nothingness at the center of her own story. Rose is a woman who invents her family and herself as she goes along, never doing anything by rote, while LuPone trusts too much in her rafter-splitting voice and bottomless bag of tricks. They just don’t add up to the one thing necessary to make any Gypsy a production for the ages: a mama who talks loud, and takes charge.