Friday, April 11, 2008

Gypsy - Have a Momma, Mister Laurents
by Tony Vellela

Great classic works are so well-crafted that they can endure various interpretations, and still deliver a powerful experience. And one of the best-ever musicals, from Arthur Laurents [book], Stephen Sondheim [lyrics] and Jule Styne [music] is the indominable Gypsy. The newest revival, starring Patti LuPone at the St. James, is directed by Laurents, and he may have gotten right what is most important in pulling off this intricate piece – balance.

Laurents told me years ago how disappointed he was with the original production, because Ethel Merman’s brassy persona came to define what everyone thought Madame Rose ought to be. [Arthur Miller said the same thing about Lee J.Cobb’s influence on most future Willy Lomans – a burly, stocky man with a lumbering gait]. It wasn’t until Laurents directed Angela Lansbury in the role that the dramatic potential of Rose’s character emerged.

This time, he’s got a truly balanced cast – a brassy stage diva who can also act, a Herbie with the sentiment to match the times, and a Louise with the sweet-and-sour mix that makes her three-dimensional by the final scenes.

They called it a musical fable, and in this staging, with minimal set pieces and the orchestra behind a scrim on stage, the bare bones of the story stand out. Laurents frames the stage with a dilapidated proscenium draped with a torn curtain, and it stays in place until the final moments, when it flies up at the point when Rose’s dream of glamour and fame are finally called out, revealed for what they are founded on – personal ambition and a need for attention. Her time, not her ‘curtain,’ is up.

Balance throughout the piece permits the unbalanced Rose in “Rose’s Turn’” to feel like the climax that it is, for whenever a Rose starts off frantic, intense and crazed, she’s got nowhere to go – no arch, no story. But this Rose, along with this excellent Herbie [the sterling Boyd Gaines], start out playfully, with teasing and testing, and it shows us that he loves her for who she can be, not just a monster stage mother, but at heart, one of the kids. That’s why she can work so well with children - she never had her own childhood, and however deadly serious the stakes are with dismal bookings and leftover Chinese for breakfast, Rose is playing. And Herbie is in love with THAT Rose.

Laura Benanti holds her emotions in naturally, a learned response rather than a survival technique, until the bottom falls out when the act’s ‘star,’ Baby June, elopes with one of the ‘boys’ in the line. Then, Louise begins to grow into the steely woman who is her mother’s equal, and then some. They are both opportunists, but Louise has the benefit of watching what her mother did wrong, and learning from it.

You can’t miss the biggest voice in Broadway during the numbers, but watch for little acting moments where LuPone invests true character behavior in what Rose does. Sitting down to read the dismissive note that June leaves, LuPone’s Rose looks up to find the ‘light’ from the billboard. Obviously [if you think about it], this woman not only corrals the kids and battles for billing, she also makes up the dances, teaches the songs and builds the sets. Look for the paint stains on the dreary raincoat early in the show, and watch it reappear when Rose lunges into “Rose’s Turn,” tearing it [her long, weary past] off her unappreciated body, and letting that defiant action propel her into her searing, overdrive breakdown. “It’s really a show about family,” Laurents told me years ago. And he has skillfully kept all the parts of this piece – music, dance, lyrics, comedy, pathos, relationships and façade – in balance, until the sheer weight of Rose’s pathetic pretense causes it all to crash in on itself. It’s as if Laurents is appealing to us : “Let Me Entertain You.” He’s done that, and so much more.

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