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A CurtainUp Review
But a live production isn't like a film which, once "in the can " locks the actors locked into their role no matter where or when the film is viewed A play or musical may be declared "frozen" and ready for critical evaluation, but the very term live performance makes a show subject to the unexpected. In the case of the much anticipated third Broadway revival of Arthur Laurents', Jules Styne's and Stephen Sondheim's brilliant collaboration, a respiratory infection temporarily left a star vehicle without a star.
The rumor mill, which had already been abuzz with speculation about Bernadette Peters not being up to the demands of playing Gypsy's Madame Rose, went into overtime mode and my second night press date was postponed until thirteen days after the May 1st . (the terms first and second nighters are something of a misnomer already since the first round of reviews tend to be based on seeing a show up to a week before the opening, while the second night reviews are often based on performances seen as much as six days after the opening night).
To get to the point of this lengthy explanation for my late review: All's well. Even without Peters to make her entrance strutting down the aisle to famously prompt the little girl on stage to "Sing out, Louise!" Gypsy retains all the flair that keep it at the top of any Best Ever Musical theater list. . Its book is built around an ever absorbing story that transcend the immediate circumstances of a life hungry woman's struggle to escape a go-nowhere, be-nobody existence but who hitches her dream to a subset of show business -- vaudeville -- that is itself at a dead end. The lyrics not only move the action forward but are in themselves exquisitely crafted character builders. The music soars melodically and begs to be heard again.
Bernadette Peters, like the character she plays, has survived her physical setback and is back on stage giving the performance of her career. Contrary to Gertrude Stein's mantra "a rose is a rose, is a rose", Ms Peter's Rose is not just another rose in a lineup of roses trying to fill the shoes of Ethel Merman for whom the show was written. (Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Betty Buckley are among the best known post-Merman Roses). Instead she's abandoned her trademark big hair for a tight marcel wave and her pout for a determined thrust of the chin. With her porcelain complexion powdered to a mask-like white and matronly period dresses and cloche hats she almost looks her age (55), but that doesn't keep her from being the sexiest Mama Rose you're likely to have seen -- as well as the most multi-dimensional and emotionally moving.
The fact that Peters is a more petite, and, at least at first glance, a loving and ever resourceful cheerleader (her pep talk to untalented youngsters: "If you have a good, strong finish, they'll forgive you for anything!") intensifies the scene-by-scene, song-by-song revelations of the neurotic drive that powers Rose Hovick's star-making enterprise. Don't let the difference in Peters' persona or having Sam Mendes directing the show fool you into thinking that he's re-engineered Gypsy as he so successfully did Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. The Mendes imprint is mainly evident in the simpler, more contemporary style that shows everything about Rose's life to be cut from the same cloth; in short, all the show's a stage -- with beds, desks and other furnishings wheeled out and away like so many props, making the off-stage scenes an apt counter image of the unreal, un-homelike existence to which Rose subjects herself and her children.
As Sondheim's lyrics so gorgeously put it, everything about Gypsy generally and this Gypsy in particular "is coming up roses" -- from the rousing overture (the last time, thanks to recent union negotions, you're likely to hear a two dozen players strong live orchestra), to the rousing finale of each act.
While Rose is the musical's pivotal character (The title is in deference to Rose's older daughter Gypsy Rose Lee, from whose memoir Arthur Laurent fashioned his own version of hers and her sister June's youth on the dying vaudeville circuit), Gypsy's claim to greatness is no small measure due to its rich cast of other characters, with even minor players delivering major pleasures -- and some doing so by doubling up on roles. Julie Halston, for example, is an incomparable, Electra, but also briskly effective as the sarcastic secretary. Miss Cratchitt, and. in an even tinier bit as a stage mother in the opening scene. David Burtka not only makes the most of his wannabe Fred Astaire solo, "All I Need Is a Girl", but does double duty as part of the ensemble.
The show's enduring stage mother theme is also quite specifically timely. Rose may be the most frightening stage mother ever, but Heather Tepe's Baby Jane, besides being hilarious in the " Let Me Entertain You" sister act, is even more scary courtesy of her all-too timely resemblance to the ill-fated toddler beauty contestant Jon Benet Ramsay.
The heart-stopping "Rose's Turn" that precedes the reversal of the mother-daughter dynamic brings me back to my opening comments about the reasons for my delayed review. While "Rose's Turn" and the "Everything's Coming Up Roses" solos are a push for Ms. Peter's voice that somehow adds to the poignancy of her character's never-ending determination, making that push eight times a week is clearly a risky business for her vocal chords. Feedback from readers who caught understudy Maureen Moore indicates that they did not feel short changed. Ms. Peter's high caliber performances would benefit from letting Ms. Moore take over the matinees and inviting reviewers to evaluate both Madame Roses. While Peters is the star most audiences want to see, the indestructible star of this or any production is the show itself. No gimmicks. Just the fortuitous combination of a super-talented creative team coming together at the right time.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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