Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 27, 2008
Gypsy Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee. Direction by Arthur Laurents. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Mr. Robbins's choreography reproduced by Bonnie Walker. Scenery designed by James Youmans. Costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting designed by Howell Binkley. Sound designed by Dan Moses Schreier. Wigs & hair designed by Paul Huntley. Make up designed by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler. Dance Arrangements by John Kander. Cast: Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti, Leigh Ann Larkin, Tony Yazbeck, Marilyn Caskey, Alison Fraser, Lenora Nemetz, with Bill Bateman, Jim Bracchitta, Sami Gayle, Bill Raymond, Brian Reddy, Emma Rowley, Andrew Boyer, Dorothy Stanley, Beckley Andrews, Nancy Renée Braun, Mindy Dougherty, Kyrian Friedenberg, Matt Gibson, Sarah Marie Hicks, Steve Konopelski, Matthew Lobenhofer, Nicole Mangi, Katie Micha, Matty Price, Andy Richardson, Lisa Rohinsky, Jessica Rush, Alicia Sable, John Scacchetti, Geo Seery Rider, Quentin Stanton, Pearce Wegener.
You can't avoid these words as you approach the St. James, where the revival of Gypsy just opened. Plastered beneath the marquee, they herald the virtues of LuPone much as a stereotypically uncultured American may scream at a confused foreigner. The logic of the hype machine is that you know the woman, you know the show, and if you don't consider this The Event of Your Lifetime then there's something wrong with you.
Not quite, but two things are very wrong. One is LuPone, who with her steel-belted personality and ceiling-slamming belt might have been born to play Madam Rose, the Medea-hewn ultimate stage mother, but forgoes the opportunity to instead deliver one of the most disgustingly self-indulgent performances in recent Broadway history. The other is the bookwriter, Arthur Laurents, who aids and abets her and directs this classic into nonsensical oblivion.
These issues are not unrelated. Laurents's and LuPone's sky-scraping egos reportedly kept them at odds (and LuPone away from Rose) for years following a disagreement, so it's unsurprising that these elemental forces would greatly impact any collaboration. And when this version of the musical, which has music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, premiered at City Center last July as part of the new Encores! Summer Stars series, you could accept the rocky results as a function of limited rehearsal time and a reconciliation still finding its footing.
It was clear then that this would never be groundbreaking like the 1959 original production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and starring Ethel Merman; a faithful recreation like the 1993 Bette Midler TV movie; or a radical (if respectful) rethinking à la Sam Mendes's revival with Bernadette Peters five years ago. It was destined to be, at best, an amalgam of styles that would have to jell despite their inherently incongruous natures. If it seemed like a long shot, you couldn't help but have faith that if these two power-broking pros could guide the show to a longer life, they'd manage to iron out the flaws.
Well iron they have these past eight months, to the point that everything is now covered in fourth-degree burns. Laurents, LuPone, and those drowning in their wake have not only made no headway in fusing those disparate elements, they've also corrupted most of what little originally worked for them.
Laurents has bloated his semi-realized view of life as a backstage travail into an entire evening of disconnected vaudeville sketches, complete with clumsy scene changes and overly rapid blackouts that dispel momentum the instant it appears. The disintegrating-theatre sets (by James Youmans), the costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz), and the lights (by Howell Binkley) may have been tweaked, but still look cheap and concept-challenged. And with only one exception, the performances have all broadened to the breaking point, with no new psychological insights uncovered during the presumably extended rehearsal period. The orchestra (led by Patrick Vaccariello) and the original Robbins choreography (reproduced by Bonnie Walker) are all that remain scintillating.
LuPone's Rose doesn't just seduce Herbie upon their first meeting with the ballad "Small World," she waggles her lower limbs with the ferocity of acute Restless Leg Syndrome; parading her assets is one thing as a tactic, but something considerably less as a gag. Another moment that should bristle with softness, the Herbie-Rose duet "You'll Never Get Away From Me," climaxes with the two rolling about on the floor, their codependent romance sacrificed on the altar of cheap laughs.
Rose's showstoppers are not more maturely handled. LuPone's meatball-mouthed renditions of showpieces like "Some People" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" don't want for the spine-tingling tones that are LuPone's trademark, but she might as well be singing in Swahili for all the sense she makes of the lyrics. The former, Rose's repudiation of the humdrum life, is bereft of determination and is propelled solely by its insane volume and supersonic tempo. The latter, her mental regrouping once June has left, is terrifying not for its implications for the unwillingly front-and-center Louise, but because it all but ignores the real message of the song: There is nothing this woman will not do.
Even the historic 11-o'clock "Rose's Turn" is never the cataclysmic breakdown it should be. Reduced to a haphazard combination of wandering, stamping, and screeching, it says nothing about Rose's unrequited ambition, or the agony of being shoved aside and left to simmer in the selfishness she cultivated. It is only about the actress playing her, prowling about the stage bearing the gnarled grin of entertainment entitlement, yet failing to deliver on any account.
Gaines no longer depicts Herbie as too immovable to be cowed by Rose's all-consuming dominion, but is now so loosey-goosey you can't help wonder if he's harboring a secret drug problem. (And he still doesn't find Herbie's inner floor mat.) Larkin has eased up on her Brechtian detachment, but has grown even more mechanical in conveying June's disinterest in her mother's games. As the three strippers who indoctrinate Louise into burlesque, Alison Fraser, Marilyn Caskey, and Lenora Nemetz (a newcomer to the company) play lowdown and dirty with too much ironic glitz to convince or amuse as the dregs of show business.
Benanti, a highlight Off-Broadway, makes three quarters of a fantastic Louise: Intelligent, the slightest bit cagey, and markedly unmannered, she's immensely satisfying as an overripe second banana kicked unceremoniously into the spotlight. But her transition to the independent Gypsy Rose Lee in the last scenes lacks the effortless effervescence you should believe was always waiting just below her surface. She's got an odd streak of self-consciousness that blossoms as her clothes come off, and explodes outright into Louise's final confrontation with Rose - even then, you feel she's putting on a show rather than coming into her own.
Nearly everyone else seems to be as well, except the young man who can think of nothing else. As Tulsa, the dancer in June and Louise's act who means the world to one and freedom to the other, Tony Yazbeck whirls and charms his way through "All I Need Is the Girl" while melding glittery dreams with dusty reality far more astutely than anyone else onstage. Matching talent with suavity, chutzpah, and an understatement that doesn't flag even at center stage, he gives the show - for a few fleeting minutes - a human center.
But Gypsy needs more than one flesh-and-blood tourist - it needs a whole population. Ripping away the curtain of gilt-edged hopes and revealing the fallacy of occupying them at the expense of one's soul can't move, enchant, or enlighten if enacted by animatronics. Perhaps this is the final proof that a voice that can shatter gold is less important than a heart that can shatter yours? If LuPone was truly born to play her role, her singing isn't sufficient. She'll also have to prove that Madam Rose - not herself - can both hurt and be hurt.