Is there a more perfect musical than Gypsy? Or a more perfect — gifted, maddening, exhilarating, intelligent — musical theatre performer than Patti LuPone? Arthur Laurents' inspired revival of the 1959 musical, which kicks off the new Encores! Summer Series, demands that you surrender to LuPone's thunderous, volcanic stage mother, Momma Rose.
But this Gypsy also has a timing problem, one pivotal to understanding how impressive the revival really is. The 89-year-old hyphenate Laurents, after all, directed the 1974 and 1989 Broadway revivals, and this one (featuring most of the original Jerome Robbins choreography) comes on the heels of the third Broadway revival, in 2003, when frowzy Bernadette Peters played Rose as driven by lust as much as by an obsession with making her kids into stars. And that was after the original production starring Ethel Merman, and after Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly conquered the role. So, for all LuPone's legendary theatrical bombast, unequaled acting chops, and incomparable (to me) singing style, she is still being tested in a role that is indisputably suited to her talents, if only because, really, we've had plenty of Gypsy. Can LuPone do anything new with Rose to make us forget the inevitable comparisons? Yes.
From the moment she barnstorms down City Center's right aisle, LuPone positions herself as the summation of all the Momma Roses who have come before her — a witches' brew of Merman's brass, Lansbury's brain, Daly's brawn, and Peters' libido, plus bits of Roses played elsewhere by the likes of Betty Buckley and others. Her Rose is more flawed and more aware of her flaws. This is a Rose who wears a crown of thorns on her sleeve.
What's equally startling about this Gypsy is the acting depth, matching LuPone scene for scene, song for song. Laura Benanti's Louise is revelatory. Watch her during "All I Need Is the Girl," which also ought to vault Tony Yazbeck, who plays Tulsa, into the front line of musical performers; Benanti's Act 2 transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee is perhaps the most psychologically nuanced ever. And if Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel, and Marilyn Caskey — as Tessie Tura, Mazeppa, and Electra, respectively — garner the usual laughs from "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," Fraser's pop-eyed double takes and Opel's bawdy trumpet-blowing are simply blown away by Caskey's deadpan scene-stealing.
Back in the (still too) long Act 1, LuPone's range is remarkable, treating Laurents' book scenes like Shakespeare and the great Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim songs as if Rose really is the American musical's King Lear. Some emotions seem dramatically inherent, others unexpected: charm in "Some People," irony in "Small World," ecstasy in "Mr. Goldstone," vulnerability in "You'll Never Get Away From Me," and desperation, but not fury, in "Everything's Coming Up Roses," the Act 1 climax. Boyd Gaines, as agent Herbie, may initially seem overshadowed, but he too has tricks up his sleeve. Just as Herbie is a man said to hold his feelings down inside, Gaines' performance ticks like a bomb; you only sense in full his sizzling chemistry with LuPone in Act 2, when he lets it out, abandoning Rose like so many men before him. And when Rose lets out what she's been holding down inside her, her "Rose's Turn" is the expiation of her demons — and of the demons that make us compare actors to actors, performances to performances. So just skip all that: LuPone's Momma Rose is one for the ages.
Presented by Encores!
at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., NYC.
July 9-29. Mon., Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., 2 p.m.
(212) 581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org.
Casting by Jay Binder.