No Need for a Gimmick, Gypsy Is Astounding: Broadway Review

Note: My recent trip to New York City allowed me to take in some exquisite shows. Here is my first review from my trip.

Gypsy **** (out of ****)
St. James Theatre
New York, NY

One of my favorite moments in the Broadway revival of Gypsy playing at the St. James Theater comes late in the first act. On stage we have Leigh Ann Larkin and Laura Benanti belting the melodic climax of the wonderful, bittersweet song "If Momma Was Married." In the final measures, both girls downstage center playing to the 4th wall, melodramatically pulsing their outstretched arms in sync with Jule Styne's almost-waltzy rhythms, we notice a quick exchange between the 2 characters. June, almost devastatingly desperate, impulsively grasps the hand of her sister. A subdued and startled Louise glances at the sudden, intimate embrace. Unable to make eye contact with her sister's profile, which is still unflinchingly glaring at the vision in front of her (perhaps a metaphysical condescending apparition of her mother), Louise acknowledges the quiet connection and smiles in acceptance, turning her head once again to that same 4th wall that determined, undistracted June faces (but perhaps to a slightly different vision - a haunting, a fate that she may never escape).

It's a powerful moment, for both characters, and a revelation for the complex relationship they share with one another. It illustrates the almost non-existent bond and relentless connection these two siblings find they have with one another. A moment that is almost missed if strict attention isn't being paid, it provides substantial evidence that the direction under Arthur Laurents is deft, precise, and wise. Detailed to a tee, Arhtur Laurents' staging is an intricate set of paradoxes: at turns both Vaudevillian and method, melodramatic and delicate, visceral and articulate. This is indeed a Gypsy of our times and one of no time: it reaches beyond the scope of past, present, and future to make a production as timeless as the piece itself.

The revelatory direction of Arthur Laurents is just one reason why this revival sparkles. Nay - it doesn't so much sparkle as it does arrive on the Great White Way with such inimitable force and energy. And the same can be said for the unparalleled acting herein present.

Yes, here she is world, the living legend Patti Lupone as Rose. With Lupone you expect a certain gravitas and showmanship that is innately her signature: the seemingly unending lung capacity, the over zealous diction, the nervously fun and dangerous energy of spontaneity, the over-the-top presentation and spectacle of her character portrayal. And she delivers - on all cylinders, full blast. In great voice and aplomb, Lupone clutches the brassiness and confidence of a golden-age matinee idol that is all too-well suited for Mama Rose. Her technical skill in voice lends itself incredibly well to Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's catchy, rich melodic score. The music seems custom made for her capabilities as a trained singer and intuitive performer. Had this been all Patti Lupone brought to her long-anticipated portrayal, she would have positioned herself cozily into the pantheon of memorable performances.

However, Ms. LuPone has another agenda. Not content with being a standard Mama Rose, she brings an acutely stylized performance refined with textures of concise and specific characterization, layers of emotional depth and complexity, and undeterred, disciplined focus. For not only is Patti LuPone a platinum-voiced belter, she is a distinguished actress of considerable talent and wisdom that comes from years of hard-working experience. She provides Rose with all the nuanced subtleties never quite afforded to her by the late Ethel Merman (a reportedly flat actress). Avoiding the pitfalls of one-dimensionality and mechanical, cold craftsmanship and technicality, LuPone inhabits her Rose and makes her all at once likable, charming, magnetic, funny, and ferocious, monstrous, discerning, appalling. For once, we understand why Herbie, Louise, June, and the players of her act are not only drawn to her initially, but are willing to stick around and confide in Madame Rose for as long as they do. By supplying just the right amount of vulnerability (watch her firm stance and battle-weary face when she sings of "nothing to hit but the heights" during the always triumphant, now devastating fanaticism of the act one closer "Everything's Coming Up Roses."), and not side-stepping the ugly brutality of criticism (listen to her ice cold delivery and brevity of the word "flat" to cut off June's last note of her happy birthday salute to Louise), Patti LuPone infuses Madame Rose's character arc with tragedy and makes her less pathetic. The victorious rise of Madame Rose and ultimate decline into despair, maybe even psychological instability, shines a luminous, almost Shakespearean, tragic light on Laurents' book and anti-hero... a "pioneer woman without a frontier." And it makes for engaging, electrifying theater.

Had LuPone been the only acting benefit, this would have made for a wonderful Gypsy. But Laurents put as much care into casting his supporting players as he did his star. And by doing so, he has sufficiently given full due to the material and by result has produced the best Gypsy ever. Boyd Gaines as Herbie, Rose's agent and would-be husband, involves us into Herbie's story (never so fully realized than here and by Gaines). His slow-boiling intensity is immensely gratifying, especially when late in the second act he is given the opportunity to express his heartache and disappointment. This moment is delivered with a finesse craftsmanship and is intensely rewarding in its visceral impact.

A truly revelatory Laura Benanti is extraordinary as Louise. Her transformation from meek Louise into powerhouse ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee is truly authentic in its depiction. Never before has the transformation been entirely believable, but Benanti provides a deft amount of awkwardness and comic nervousness mixed with rhapsodic anxiety and fear to help the audience believe in the authenticity of the manifestation of Gypsy Rose Lee. She has a gorgeous singing voice, which adds rich and beautiful undertones to "Litte Lamb" previously unheard. One of my favorite aspects of her performance is her changing character voice, especially in song.

Special kudos to Martin Pakledinaz's outstanding costumes which aid tremendously in Loiuse's path. And lest we forget the wonderfully comic and garishly hilarious outfits for Electra, Mazeppa, and Tessie Tura (the outrageously entertaining Marilyn Caskey, Lenora Nemetz, and Alison Fraser). The reinterpretation of the strip done with an older set of women, past their prime, is an indelible imprint on the musical.

Tony Yazbeck makes for a debonair Tulsa, his voice resonating with just enough wide-eyed optimism and innocence to contrast with Leigh Ann Larkin's mind-blowing dark interpretation of Dainty June. Traditionally played more complacent, Larkin's June is a bored, bitter, frustrated, even angry June and it supplies a new angle to all the relationships in the musical. She takes a risk, a big one... and it pays off enormously. She nails it. Not too mention her great skill as a dancer, huge vocal pipes, and wonderful comic timing. This is Leigh Ann Larkin's calling card to the world of Broadway. Expect to see great things from her in the future.

Referring back to that exquisite scene with June and Louise singing "If Momma Was Married:" the song is orchestrated and sung beautifully from a small, almost chamber quality sound (fitting for the prevalent tension and hefty uneasiness between the two characters) and ends incredibly into a cry for desperation. The song ends in operatic scope - almost power-ballad laden; an aria of longing, distant unrealized dreams. For once, June and Louise share the same dream and shout it to the rafters with unified persistence ("Oh momma, get married today!"). Never has the song (and whole score, for that matter) been sung with such intensity and characterization.

Oh, and that glorious onstage 25 piece orchestra! To hear the greatest overture in the musical theatre canon live and full-bodied is an opportunity to savor. Soak it up and let the lush music just wash over. And once again, Arthur Laurents knows when to use that gorgeous orchestra to fully benefit the production in 2 stellar moments of staging during Tulsa's "All I Need Is the Girl" and the finale ultimo "Rose's Turn." Dynamo direction which gave me chills and tears.

The production itself has a modest look and set design by James Youmans which I loved. The simple yet effective design fits with Laurents' Vaudevillian inspired staging. It also helps to emphasize the story and characters and brings them to the centered focus. It's all beautifully realized.

The production is at many times quite moving and awe-inspiring. The closing stage picture is one of eternal words and infinite emotions. The grasp for fading dreams, the disillusion of false confidence, the flickering lights of a soon to be gone era of entertainment. This kind of quality show does not come along very often, and hopefully that last image isn't a sign of a fading musical theatre world. They don't make them like they used to, correct. But thanks to this production, there is now inspiration to those that do make them now to hopefully continue in and contribute to the great American art that it musical theatre. Bravo!


Joie Mayfield said...

Fantastic Review!!

Esther said...

What a wonderful, detailed review!

I agree about Laura Benanti's transformation. It really was breathtaking. You're right, the costume design aided it immensely. And Boyd Gaines created such a sympathetic, heartbreaking Herbie.

As for Patti, wow, what more can I say - she's just so powerful and amazing. When I saw it last summer at City Center, the audience leaped to its feet to give her a standing ovation after "Everything's Coming Up Roses." First time I'd ever seen that done, and it was thrilling. I think she even kicked her performance up a notch from the summer.

I'm so glad you had a chance to see this.

Joseph Gomez said...


Thanks for the comment. Hopefully I can keep spitting out reviews on a more regular basis.

and PS... you can keep the spelling ;-)

Joseph Gomez said...


I really enjoy reading well written reviews. One of my all time favorite writers is Roger Ebert. I've been a faithful reader of his for years now. They say model yourself after the best, and quite frankly, that's what I'm trying to do here. I think in order for readers to really understand what you are trying to get across, you must be detailed and specific.

Also, this was a sort of 'formal' review. I will publish my personal experience and thoughts in a follow up post.

Thanks for your readership!

JohnnyFox said...

possibly fuelled by the collective wish-fulfilment of so many British gay men, there's a rumour here that once finished on Broadway, LuPone may bring this to London ...

... but I also believed she had other projects Stateside?

Any news you can share?

Johnny (in London)

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