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A MAMA ROSE YOU WOULDN’T FOLLOW ANYWHERE

 

picture - GypsyTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published March 28, 2008

 

Gypsy

now playing on Broadway at the St. James Theater

 

If Patti LuPone could turn an ordinary musical like Can-Can into an extraordinary star vehicle and if her tough, driving, tuba-playing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd could almost make you forget Angela Lansbury’s once-in-a-lifetime performance in that part, then surely it is safe to assume that she could take on Mama Rose, the musical theater’s Hamlet, and everything would come up roses. And, since she proves, when she finally plants her feet firmly on the stage of the St. James Theatre, and belts out “Rose’s Turn” with a determination that would force Napoleon to retreat, that she could devour the world with her ferocity, it is sad to report that, in this instance, a musical number does not a musical performance make. Even Patti LuPone needs direction. And that is just what she doesn’t get in the uninspired, tone-deaf revival that calls itself Gypsy, but which bears very little resemblance to the classic Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim classic we all love and can’t seem to get enough of.

 

And the irony is that the director is Arthur Laurents, who wrote the prize-winning book and has directed two other successful revivals (one with Angela Lansbury, one with Tyne Daly). It may just be that Mr. Laurents has directed Gypsy once too often. He has no new tricks up his sleeve and, even worse, he seems uninterested in even coming up with a new idea. The production is cheesy and moth-eaten. The sets are drab.  The costumes are ugly and unflattering.  Jerome Robbins’ gorgeous choreography has been reproduced with such lackluster results that one can’t help wondering if the Robbins estate might consider taking his name off the credits. Perhaps – is it blasphemous to suggest this? – Mr. Laurents never liked Robbins’ choreography. In the staging of “All I Need Is The Girl,” for example, Laurents suggests that the character Tulsa has no talent. This may be an accurate appraisal of the character, but who in their right mind would let a potentially great dance number fall so flat on its feet? And the way practically everyone runs roughshod through the songs, it often seems as if Laurents hasn’t much respect for the score, either. The most common cliché in the theater is that when everything is going wrong, a show can be saved by picking up the pace. Here, at least in the first act, the pace seems to have been deliberately retarded.

 

There are as many ways to play Mama Rose, the mother who pushes her daughters way past the limits of their talents in order to give her own life some meaning, as there are ways to play any great character, and one of the joys of each revival of Gypsy is to see what each artist personally brings to the part. She can be steely and unfeeling and self-absorbed (as the inimitable Ethel Merman was) or warm and pliant (as Angela Lansbury was) or a sexy, talented woman who would rather be on the stage than standing in the wings (as Bernadette Peters was, in a performance that lingers so vividly in one’s memory). Patti LuPone was a logical choice to take the role to still another dimension. But, under Laurents’ direction, Ms. LuPone has no character at all. She races through her songs, traipses ploddingly from one scene to another, hits every comic line as if to make sure the audience gets it, and, at best, gives us a blueprint for a snarling, clumsily awkward Mama Rose who wouldn’t know what talent was if it hit her in the face. The only thing about her we truly understand is why everybody wants to leave her behind, a sad truth that unfortunately doesn’t keep us interested in what happens to her.

 

Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the first sign of life in this revival is the moment when her daughters, Louise and June, sing “If Momma Was  Married,” an ode to their possible escape from Rose’s domination. Even this song is undercut a bit by the fact that Leigh Ann Larkin as June is encouraged to play the part as one pissed-off bitch whose freezing anger verges on the psychopathic. And, with this Mama Rose, the fact that her lover Herbie hangs around as long as he does is downright mystifying. Boyd Gaines, one of those actors usually incapable of hitting a wrong note, is so woefully miscast as Herbie that one feels as sorry for the actor as much as for the character he is playing. It might also be noted that some actors, playing double roles, make no attempt at differentiating one character from the other, and again, one is in a quandary as to whether this could possibly be intentional or Laurents just wasn’t paying attention. 

 

Not everything in this revival is so misguided. LuPone does get that final song right and makes sure that everyone knows it, but, because it seems to come out of nowhere, it feels as if she has been marking time, waiting for the moment, and, even when it comes, Laura Benanti’s Louise has already stolen the show from under her. Not only does Benanti have warmth to spare, but if this revival has its own particular wallop, it comes from the final confrontation between mother and daughter, with Benanti most triumphantly in charge. And her graduation from Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee, the famed stripper she blossoms into, is very well done. And, of course, the one fool-proof number – the three tired strippers showing off their talents in “You Gotta Have A Gimmick” – gets a terrific workout. And maybe, just maybe, if it was really Laurents’ intention to turn this revival into a sour dissertation on the unpleasantness of show business, nobody in the cast exudes the kind of verisimilitude that Marilyn Caskey, in the role of Electra, does.  And she does it without any gimmicks. She’s just real, which is electrifying enough. It’s the kind of wattage this revival is in desperate need of.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 
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