Gypsy 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. Scenic/Costume Design by Anthony Ward. Light Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Musical Supervisor Patrick Vaccariello. Music Direction/Additional Dance Music Arrangements by Marvin Laird. Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair Design by David Brian Brown. Orchestrations by Sid Ramin & Robert Ginzler. Dance Arrangements by John Kander. Music Coordinator Michael Keller. Cast: Bernadette Peters, with Tammy Blanchard and John Dossett. Also starring Brooks Ashmanskas, Kate Buddeke, David Burtka, Julie Halston, Heather Lee, Michael McCormack, Maureen Moore, William Parry, Kate Reinders, Heather Tepe, Addison Timlin.
Though this proclamation might prove higher praise in most other seasons, Gypsy is the best musical revival of the season. The reason for this can be summed up in two words: Sam Mendes.
Mendes, the Academy Award-winning director responsible for Roundabout's long-running Cabaret revival, knows how to do two things the creative teams behind this year's previous revivals do not: How to make a musical feel like a musical, and how to revive a show without killing what made it great in the first place. Scott Ellis and Nicky Silver (of The Boys from Syracuse), Robert Longbottom and David Henry Hwang (Flower Drum Song), Jonathan Kent (Man of La Mancha), and David Leveaux (Nine), please pay attention.
Though he's left both Arthur Laurents's classic book and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's invigorating score intact, Mendes puts his own spin on the seminal, almost 44-year old show chronicling the early life and career of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee by steeping the production completely in the world of vaudeville it already inhabits. This produces a half-realistic, half-conceptual interpretation that, while imperfect, is one of the freshest and most exciting musical productions on Broadway this season.
But in approaching this Gypsy, you must leave a few expectations at the door. Eye-popping sets you won't find - Anthony Ward (who also designed the costumes) has created a vaudeville theatre of a set, complete with drops, door frames, and representative set pieces, to define every scene clearly while allowing the showbiz and "real" worlds to remain forever separate. Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler's original, almost matchless, orchestrations have been reduced, yes, but under the music direction of Marvin Laird and the musical supervision of Patrick Vaccariello, the score - complete with overture! - still sounds pretty great.
Finally, there's Bernadette Peters, one of Broadway's few remaining musical stars, taking on the leading role of Rose, one of the musical theatre's richest and most enduring dramatic creations. You won't get Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, or Tyne Daly from her. You will get a portrayal of the ultimate stage mother as a truly seductive woman who batters people from the inside out instead of the outside in.
One moment, Peters's Rose is the ideal, loving mother to her children, Louise and June (Addison Timlin and Heather Tepe early on and Tammy Blanchard and Kate Reinders later), and willing to steal anything necessary for her children's vaudeville act the next. Then she's using her truly sexy figure and honed feminine wiles to lure weak-willed Herbie (John Dossett) into representing her act, and so on. Nearly every scene reveals a new set of challenges for Rose, and Peters never fails to tackle them in increasingly inventive ways.
As she's not quite the big-voiced singer who has traditionally played Rose, Peters can't give all the songs the same trumpeted treatment they have previously received, but it seldom matters. Her first big explosion number, "Some People" instantly dispels expectations with a thunderstorm of emotion, "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me" are truly moving and seductive relationship songs, and "Together Wherever We Go" a perfect musical comedy-type moment. Only twice does Peters falter, in the first act finale, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," which suffers a bit from the lack of a bulldozer treatment, and her "Rose's Turn," while brilliantly acted, feels like it wants more voice. The rest of the time, Peters is wonderful and, perhaps surprisingly, exactly right for the role.
Dossett intensely acts and effortlessly sings Herbie, while Reinders is in fine form as the grown-up June, David Burtka sings and dances Tulsa, one of the performers in Rose's act, very well, and Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke, and Julie Halston, as the strippers who describe the benefits of doing the unusual in "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," make the number the major comic highlight it deserves to be. Only Blanchard disappoints; she effectively captures Louise's quiet heartbreak at being pushed into the shadows by her mother so that her sister can have the spotlight herself, but doesn't come into her own when she must become Gypsy Rose Lee at the evening's climax. The subsequent scenes in which she confronts her mother about her domineering ways fall flat when they truly need to soar.
This points up Mendes's primary, yet hardly insignificant, direction fault: He doesn't know how to handle stars. He lets otherwise fine choreographer Jerry Mitchell (who augments Jerome Robbins's dances) sabotage Louise's transformation into Gypsy with an impossibly long feather boa that steals the spotlight from her. In "Some People" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses," onstage lights (courtesy of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), not Peters, get the final statements, and a highly distracting scene change dilutes "Rose's Turn." Because Gypsy is truly a musical about people, even the blurred focus in just these few places can keep it from being less than as satisfying and exciting as it should be.
Even so, the show's dramatic power and emotional impact are undeniable; this is a musical for the ages, and if Mendes has not given it a production for the ages, he's done pretty darn well by it for 2003. Regardless, this production nonetheless demonstrates the great value to be found in being innovative while respecting an established work; that, if nothing else, makes this Gypsy one to remember, and one to wholeheartedly enjoy.