I have never seen a great Cordelia, or for that matter a great Ophelia, and I thought a great Louise in Gypsy, a Broadway musical Shakespearean in its rivalries, was a physical impossibility – until now.
In the Encores series’ revival of the 1959 Laurents-Sondheim-Styne show at City Center, Laura Benanti pulls off the miraculous: she is as persuasive playing Louise as a timid girl as she is interpreting the character’s luscious days as the stripper Rose.
Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy has been hyped as the Patti LuPone show, in honour of the star who plays Louise’s ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose. Unlike Benanti, LuPone is not a revelation.
Instead, her Mama Rose is a confirmation: that after years of showing she had the mettle and moxie of Ethel Merman, the role’s indomitable originator, she did not, at age 58, arrive too late to this story of a mother-daughter conflict in 1930s America.
LuPone has, in trumps, the one quality that Bernadette Peters, in the 2003 revival directed by Sam Mendes, lacked: vulgarity. Without vulgarity, an actor playing Mama Rose belongs not in New York but on the small-town circuit of the kind that Mama Rose and her two daughters and their manager Herbie, played affectingly here by Boyd Gaines, traversed with difficulty.
But even vulgarity isn’t a guarantee of success: it didn’t save Bette Midler’s television turn as Mama Rose from disaster.
Over the years, LuPone has been injecting aspects of Mama Rose into other musical characters: Norma Desmond’s delusion in Sunset Boulevard, Mrs Lovett’s savagery in Sweeney Todd and even Mrs Peron’s ruthlessness in Evita.
But in Gypsy, LuPone finally knits the strings into a fully textured garment. If there is not much surprise to the performance, there is plenty of excitement – and plenty of room to grow into the part, if only the run were to be extended beyond three weeks.
The production, with spare sets, was directed by Arthur Laurents, its book writer, who, at age 89, is capable of giving even LuPone a few lessons in bravado. About the signature tunes I’ll say only that a week from now they will still be ringing in my memory.
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