The first time I ever saw Gypsy on stage was last summer in New York, as part of the City Center Encores series. Even a musical theater novice like myself could see that the transformation of Laura Benanti from plain-Jane Louise to glamorous burlesque performer and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was stunning. Last Sunday, I saw Gypsy again, at Broadway's St. James Theatre, and it was even better.
When you're writing about Gypsy, it seems more traditional to talk first about Mamma Rose rather than June and Louise - the daughters she tries, with singleminded devotion and all the subtlety of a bulldozer, to mold into stars. In fact, people seem to refer to the various incarnations over the years by who played Rose: the 1959 orginal, with Ethel Merman, followed by revivals in 1974 with Angela Lansbury, 1989 with Tyne Daly and 2003 with Bernadette Peters. I looked up the credits for those productions and I've never even heard of any of the actresses who played Louise.
Mamma Rose is such a strong, overwhelming presence from the moment she comes marching down the aisle and onto the stage. Even though the musical is called Gypsy, and based on her daughter's memoir, in many ways it's Rose's story. And Patti LuPone is a powerhouse in the role. But while I'd never seen LuPone on stage, I certainly knew of her. Even though I wasn't really familiar with her as a singer, I knew and loved her from the television series Life Goes On in the early '90s.
Benanti, on the other hand, was pretty much an unknown quantity. I knew her from the Broadway cast recording of The Wedding Singer, but I'd never seen her perform. Over the past year, I've watched more than a few shows in which a character goes on a life-transforming journey. But I can't think of another one quite as terrific as Louise's in Gypsy. Yes, there's something thrilling and chilling hearing LuPone belt out Gypsy's classic numbers. But there's something about Benanti's portrayal that just totally blew me away.
At the start of the show, Louise, her hair in pigtails, wearing slightly baggy, boyish clothes, looks kind of like a tomboy. She knows she's not the daughter that Mamma Rose is preparing for stardom, that's reserved for Leigh Ann Larkin's June, the supposedly prettier, more talented sister. But when June, having had enough of her domineering mother, heads off to make her own way in the world, Mamma turns to Louise. Now, she'll be the daughter who becomes a star. Louise's first attempts at that role are kind of awkward. The way Benanti moves and speaks conveys a sense of tentativeness and insecurity.
By the end, with her hair up, wearing makeup and dressed in evening clothes, Benanti's Louise has become a different person to go with her new name. Major credit belongs to the great costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, wig and hair design by Paul Huntley and makeup by Angelina Avallone. I almost felt like I was seeing a completely different person on stage, the transformation was so dramatic and complete.
But it's more than just nicer clothes, hair and makeup. By the end of the musical, even Louise's personality has changed. And this inner transformation is Benanti's alone. Seeing her on stage as a stripper, she's funny, teasing, sexy and radiant. In her dressing room, with Mamma Rose, she's confident and assertive. It's truly a remarkable performance, and I could watch it again and again.
One of the things I appreciate most about Gypsy is that while it may be nearly 50 years old, the plot, about the ultimate stage mother, still seems so relevant. It's as current as preschool beauty pageant contestants, preteen athletic phenoms, starlets and singers, or even the latest spelling prodigy. It's about the expectations parents have for their children, how they sometimes measure their own success by their children's achievement, and the resentment that is often created as a result.
As Mamma Rose, LuPone embodies every parent who ever tried to live their life through their children out of a misguided sense that they're doing the right thing, out of a desire to give their children the advantages and career that they were denied. I think it's a role that could easily fall into an over-the-top performance, a Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest "no more wire hangers" caricature.
But LuPone is so skillful that she makes Rose a tragic, yet sympathetic character. She wants so much for her daughters to have what she didn't have that she loses sight of what they want. She pushes a man who truly loves her out of her life, and in the end, when Louise doesn't need her anymore, she's left only with her own sadly unfulfilled dreams.
I loved LuPone's performance from the Encores production. But I think she's even kicked it up a notch for Broadway. She seemed even more determined this time to make her daughters stars no matter what. She seemed more obsessive, more everything, and it makes the ending even sadder.
Watching LuPone "act" a song is amazing. She's brilliant singing the optimism of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" that ends Act I. When the song got a standing ovation over the summer, I turned to the person next to me and said, "That was incredible." "Just wait," he advised me, "Just wait." He was right. With the finale of "Rose's Turn," when Mamma Rose asks why she couldn't have been a star, the anguish on her face is so real and so devastating and so unforgettable. LuPone's rendition was even more powerful than I remembered from the first time.
In fact, everything is as good or better on Broadway as it was over the summer. The funny songs, like "Have an eggroll, Mr. Goldstone," seemed funnier. The advice that Louise gets in "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," performed by strippers Tessie Tura (Alison Fraser), Mazeppa (Lenora Nemetz) and Electra (Marilyn Caskey), seemed even more hilarious.
And Boyd Gaines, as Rose's long-suffering companion, Herbie, is wonderful. This time, he seemed even more enchanted and exasperated by her, and in the end, even more hurt when she couldn't stop being the stage mother long enough to marry him. I felt so sorry for this dignified, decent man who wanted nothing more than to make a home for Rose and her daughters, and who didn't deserve to be treated with such disdain.
I can certainly see why Gypsy is considered a classic. The book by Arthur Laurents has so many strong, interesting characters. When I think about shows I didn't enjoy as much, it's because the characters haven't drawn me in, haven't engaged me. I simply didn't care about them as much. There's no chance of that with Gypsy. The words and music, by Stephen Sondheim and the late Jule Styne are sweet and funny and tender and rich. When you hear songs like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" played by a 25-piece orchestra on stage, it's pretty powerful.
While Gypsy isn't my favorite musical - there are simply too many others that I love equally - it certainly has become one of my favorites, and one of my most unforgettable experiences at the theatre.