nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 2, 2008
The score—one of the American musical theatre's proudest creations, written by Jule Styne and orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler—sounds great. The orchestra is on the stage, and under Patrick Vaccariello's baton, this 25-member ensemble produces music that is never less than thrilling; the producers of the new revival of Gypsy have not stinted in this department.
But everywhere else, this production comes up not roses but rosebuds, by which I mean that the show feels skimpy in terms of its production values, performances, and emotional content. Gypsy, which features a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee and tells how an awkward little girl named Louise who grew up in the shadow of her talented and prettier younger sister became the celebrated queen of the striptease. The protagonist of the piece is, as you probably know, Gypsy's mother Rose, the ultimate stage mother, a woman who pushes her daughters into a limelight that she herself had missed out on. When June, the younger daughter, finds a way out from under her mother's thumb, Rose turns her attention on Louise, and eventually oversees her transformation into the biggest star of burlesque in the 1930s. (There's a more detailed plot synopsis—with spoilers—in Wikipedia.)
The relationships among Rose, her daughters, and Herbie, the candy salesman-turned-agent who guides the family's act and becomes Rose's long-term boyfriend/fiance-to-be, comprise the engine of the show; what fuels it are the powerhouse musical numbers by Styne and Sondheim that alternately reveal the desires and dreams of these characters (e.g., "Some People," "If Momma Was Married," "Together Wherever We Go") and pay affectionate tribute to the tacky, gaudy, tawdry world of American show biz ("All I Need Is the Girl," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," and "Let Me Entertain You" repeated in various guises).
Alas, none of this is seen to advantage in this revival. Patti LuPone plays Rose, but her characterization feels scattershot and superficial; I never had a clear sense of what kind of woman she's supposed to be. Too often, especially in big numbers like the iconic "Rose's Turn" that closes the show, she breaks the fourth wall and lapses into a kind of divadom, seeking and basking in the audience's praise. Now, seeking praise is a plausible choice for Rose, but receiving it doesn't make sense in the context of the show—and every time LuPone responded to the audience's applause and cheers, she took me right out of the story.
She also, surprisingly, fails to sing the score well. "Together" comes off best, performed with easy-going informality with Laura Benanti (Louise/Gypsy) and Boyd Gaines (Herbie). But in both "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn," she runs out of steam before the songs are over, and concludes both screaming rather than singing.
Benanti's Louise and Leigh Ann Larkin's June are both too arch and too worldly to be convincing; both actresses appear far older than the teenagers they are supposed to be. Gaines's Herbie feels a little peremptory, and his lack of chemistry with LuPone is problematic.
Odd directorial and performative choices pervade the proceedings, offering a slew of distractions that hurt the show. One of the most problematic of these has to do with the portrayal of the three strippers who befriend Louise in one of the show's most famous songs, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." They are played as way over-the-hill by Alison Fraser, Marilyn Caskey, and Lenora Nemetz; the number's witty vulgarity crosses the line from parody to crude misogyny, and lands, mean-spiritedly, with a thud.
The sets, designed by James Youmans, are very sketchy, including deliberately amateurish drops and curtains for the vaudeville scenes and minimal arrangements of furniture for the naturalistic portions of the show. It looks a little too economical; especially when audience members are paying $117 for orchestra seats (and $252 for so-called premium seats), there needs to be more of a fully fleshed out world on stage than what's offered here. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are gorgeous when he's dressing Benanti as Gypsy, but he perhaps overdoes the dowdy in LuPone's wardrobe (the maroon dress she wears for "Rose's Turn" is particularly unflattering).
In previous incarnations, Gypsy has been billed as "a musical fable," which is an apt description of a work that manufactures a pleasingly illusory history for its title character against a backdrop of misremembered, romanticized theatrical lore. That phrase is missing from the playbill this time and from the ethos of the show, too; this Gypsy, directed by Laurents himself, is leaner and meaner than before and never strays far from the surface of its story and characters. There's still some enjoyment to be had from hearing those remarkable Styne tunes (especially the incomparable overture). But everything that's sharing the stage with the orchestra is insufficient to do this landmark musical justice.