The Playgoer: REVIEW: LuPone/"Gypsy"

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

REVIEW: LuPone/"Gypsy"

by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Steven Sondheim
starring Patti LuPone
at City Center, Encores

Yes, in case you're wondering, Ben Brantley must have been on crack when he wrote his by now infamous dissent to what is currently the most talked about performance in New York.

Or make that 'ludes. Maybe it was he who was lethargic and unfocused in his seat, not Patti LuPone.

LuPone has long been a favorite target of Broadway bitchiness due to her unrestrained, sometimes warbling belting, passion over technique, and rumors of offstage divadom. But let's face it: with musical theatre in an age of mechanical reproduction, how refreshing it is to feel a human pulse on stage, for an actress to stare us in the eyes, pour her heart out, and fully inhabit the spotlight of a star.

This is why this true creature of the stage (hence her limited film & tv career) is indeed the perfect fit for Gypsy's Rose, the stage mother from hell. Everyone knew how perfect the casting was going in, the only question is: does she deliver.

I will agree with Brantley that LuPone does seem to take some time warming up. She's not a total battleax from the get-go. But, to be fair, in this Encores staging, the famous "Sing out, Louise" entrance down the aisle is dwarfed by City Center's cavernous 2700-seat hall. (Rather than hearing that voice from the back of the theatre, it comes muffled over the mic, just like everything else. Plus it would tire anyone out just getting onto that stage!) It's also plausible she and director Arthur Laurents (who wrote the thing) agreed on a very gradual "arc" for the character, so she can leave herself somewhere to go. Whatever the reason, I'd say I was tempted to agree with Brantley for the first half hour or so.

But definitely by the point of that Act One finale, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," things got scary. As they should. LuPone's intensity, locking her eyes into Louise, drilling those words "I had a dream...." into her and us, sent audible shivers down some audience spines around me. Sure, she wandered around the stage a bit, sure some words got garbled (perhaps the mics). But the timing and pacing of her energy just nailed the song. It erupted so fully so quickly. At once you sensed both the performer LuPone barely containing her wish to rip into the song along with the desperation of the character, Rose, in getting through to her daughter before she even thinks of giving up.

And the song just happened to end with the most perfectly timed curtain. After a frenzied build- up of those wonderully Sondheimian climactic grasping-at-straws lines ("Honey, everything's coming up roses and daffodils!/ Everything's coming up sunshine and Santa Claus! /Everything's gonna be bright lights and lollipops!") it dropped so fast at the end, with LuPone mid-note ("...for me and for you!") that you almost feared it would hit her in the head. Hard to describe the effect, but it was like the perfect quick cutaway from a great movie line. And the audience just exploded.

This was just the prep for the second great curtain number, the moment the entire audience was waiting for, "Rose's Turn." Funny that Brantley concedes, in passing, "And she brings a harrowing psychological nakedness to the big nervous-breakdown number, 'Rose’s Turn.' " Uh, isn't that kind of the whole show?

If you read the accounts of what the artistic team wanted from that number--to portray the fragmenting of the human mind in musical theatre vocabulary--then it's hard to imagine a more faithful realization than LuPone's. By accounts, Merman's had all the power but lacked depth. I can attest to Bernadette Peters negotiating the many musical challenges with expertise, but without the insanity.

Well "insane" pretty much describes LuPone's "Turn." And while it will confirm all her critics' worst fears of her, I have to say it was pretty magical as a moment in musical theatre. For once the song was dangerous. Not just for the character, but for the audience. And for the performer. It was grotestque, messy, and loud, loud, loud. In short, it was everything your vocal coach would tell you never to do and it was absolutely the raw essence of Gypsy laid bare. The quick moments in the number when Rose fantasizes her own strip-act--aggressively pushing her bust out, taunting men in the front row with gargoylesque winks--were almost painfully unwatchable. LuPone still can be genuinely sexy (as she demonstrates in other numbers) but this was a brave display of foolhardy vulnerability.

That old combination of pity and terror. By pushing the latter to the edge, LuPone achieved the former for this complicated character. And I mean pity as in "pitiful", pathos as in "pathetic".

For better or worse. For at the end of the day, Gypsy is a musical about a mania. Sure there's the cheesy vaudeville numbers, the ascent of sweet Louise into savvy stripper. But what distinguisged it at the time, and makes it historic now, is the devotion of a musical to the dark side of domestic human life.

While I'm not sure even Sondheim is approving of roughness of LuPone's treatment, it certainly points the direction for all the Sondheim "breakdowns" to come. (Let's just say her Mrs. Lovett from last season's Sweeney Todd was very much present on stage.) Watching her I suddenly made the connection--now obvious to me--between "Rose's Turn" and the end of "Follies," so movingly captured by Victor Garber in another Encores staging back in February. That moment when you're not exactly sure whether it's the character losing it or the actor. The way he keeps playing with the layers of performance and what it means to go up on your lines. In a word: stagefright.

As for the rest of "Gypsy"--and I suppose there is a "rest of"--it remains a masterfully constructed, if somewhat maudlin, example of the artform. The last of the tin-pan-alley tuners, the forerunner of the "concept" musicals. Because of the great ambitions of the show in psychological realism, the older conventions don't hold up as well: the silly vaudeville numbers, the obligatory love duet ("All I Need is the Girl") in a show with no love. There's an interesting account in Laurents' memoirs of the tension in rehearsals between his own dramaturgical goals and Jerome Robbins' constant search for more dance numbers. That unresolved bifurcation is still much in evidence, I think.

I'll also add that Laura Benanti is excellent as Louise. Since I didn't quite catch Wedding Singer, I had no idea who she was. But she manages in this still opaque role, to project at once smarts and innocence, as well as a necessary rock solid stability to stand up to LuPone's one-woman maelstrom. It was nice to have the dramatic heft of Boyd Gaines (fresh from "Journey's End") as the lover/agent Herbie, but it still seems a thankless role in a story of manic women.

This "Encores" production is, for once, truly a production, not a reading. An attempt for the little -enterprise-that-could to cash in on their fan base and put up a long run of a familiar show for a change. But it does look like some expense has been spared in the scenic department, and an air of cheapness does pervade the physical production. Plus, having to perform in the Encores venue of City Center does no piece of theatre any good outside of maybe a revival of a "Ziegfeld Follies.

To return to Brantley's complaint. The marvel of watching LuPone is her sheer presence. She has something that Bernadette Peters could never have had, no matter how hard she tried to "act" it: desperation. Specifically the desperation of an outsider. She shoves, she steams, she scours as if it is her natural state. When a performer is just right for a role, they exude more in their body than any dramatist can write into a line. So even when LuPone seems to be coasting a bit, or not totally filling the lines or the songs, to look at her tells you everything you need to know about this character.

Does it help to know how much she really, really has wanted to play this part after years of being essentially banned from it? Does it help to see it on the very night after Mr. Brantley's review came out, when everyone in the house is rooting for her, and egging her on to give a big "fuck you" of a performance? You bet.

But hey, that's all theatre, too.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

So very glad you enjoyed, as well as for calling out Mr. Brantley's inanities.

Anonymous said...

Great review! Can you take over for Mr. Brantley? It would do us all a world of good.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it--both the show and the fact that Brantley must have been checking his Blackberry at the back of the theater. This production is magic, to a degree not seen in any Broadway show in years. LuPone chewing her way through Rose's Turn is beyond electric. Laura Benanti fills the spectrum, first with her heartbreaking mimicing of Texas's moves in "All I Need Is The Girl" , and then in her transformation into the full Gypsy (she makes you understand, at a completely visceral level, just what some people see in striptease). Boyd Gaines is brilliant as Herbie. The entire cast is terrific and the production completely sublime. I'd not only go again; I'd pay scalper's prices to sit upfront.

Anonymous said...

I have only one thing to say. Just amazing Pattie Lapone is Mama Rose.
Thanks for a wonderful evening of Broadway theatre

Anonymous said...

I saw it on July 26, and was just looking up some reviews. I didn't think Brantley's review was as harsh as you made out. He did appreciate the overall performance, and I myself was a little disappointed by "Everything's Coming Up Roses." (Maybe I've heard the Merman version too many times. My exposure to "Gypsy" is that recording and the movie with Rosalind Russell, which I liked.)

You're absolutely right about Lupone's skill at conveying the desperation and mania. I started to tear up when she gave the famous speech to Louise before her daughter goes on the first time as a stripper about the need to leave as a star, any kind of star.

And "Rose's Turn," as you've discussed, was absolutely amazing. I'm not a playgoer, I'm a moviegoer, but at the end of that, as I stood clapping, I thought: "This is why people love the theater. This couldn't have been done better in any other form."

In the end, a great night, and by the end I could indeed see why "Gypsy" is considered to be the great American musical.

Thanks for your interesting post.

Anonymous said...

I left the post above. I should add that I went only because someone else who'd already seen it wanted to see it again and said there were some $25 seats left. I ended up in the very last row at City Center. That's nose-bleed altitude and I have a touch of acrophobia. My view of the stage was partly obscured. So it's all the more impressive how powerfully the drama came across.

Bob said...

Wonderfully written review! I couldn't have articulated it better. I saw it two nights in a row - it was thrilling. In addition, saw her do Rose at Ravinia, too. All three nights. She certainly turned it up several degrees under the guidance of Laurents.

Anonymous said...

Very fine review, and I should put something here about the last performance, which would have had some extra mania as I had imagined it might. Not only were Sondheim and Laurents onstage at the end, but at the beginning, Barbara Walters was waiting for friends quite casually out front, and being gracious to solicitous fans while looking an unbelievable knockout in white at age 77 (she is much more attractive in person than on television.) Anyway, I put that in because it seemed like a good omen, and indeed it was.

The audience was so crazed and excited they were screaming with the first notes of the overture. I knew Patti was going to deliver a special kind of primal scream in the last 'MEEEEEEE!!!' of Rose's Turn, or rather I was hoping very consciously that she would without damaging herself. And at the curtain calls, she could hardly stand to leave the stage--made the character continue. Just beautiful. I reviewed this myself on a Ballet Forum the other day, and we were all, of course, annoyed by Brantley's constipated talk. I see what you mean to some degree about 'the arc', but by the time of 'Some People', she already taps into the electricity.

Agree about cheap atmosphere of sets. What was interesting was that they got the most important things right--ALL the performers are excellent, and the orchestra sounded stupendous. But I really thought the sets were drab and most of the costumes, including Lupone's. Worst was Tulsa's cornpone outfit, he should have been natty like the guy in the movie, which I think is very underrated. But Tulsa looked as though he wore a hand-me-down (from real-life, no less.) But the only slightly serious problem, as opposed to these superficial ones, was that they wouldn't slow down the tempo for 'Small World' and 'You'll Never Get Away from Me'. This made the whole first act rush too much, and although 'Everything's Coming up Roses' was thrilling, it would have had even more power had there been some 'breaths' taken (I almost had the feeling they'd try to do the whole show without intermission, and I have been noticing this tendency to speed up all music in various kinds of productions. It's a bad sign--they do it in 'the Nutcracker' at NYCB in 'Waltz of the Flowers', for example, and the dancer has to fight and race like mad to keep up.

In any case, I hope they do a production now that is worthy of this magnificent performance, mainly Lupone's, but, startlingly, including everybody else's as well. I love the Merman recording because of the unique timbre of the Merman stinging voice, but there was nothing missing here. I also think Rosalind Russell was an excellent Rose and the movie is in fact a good place to look to get some of the 'theater glitter-look' into the proceedings. Once that's taken care of, they'll have the ultimate 'Gypsy', and should probably even consider re-making the movie. I definitely think Lupone, however big, could do some big parts in film, and she ought to have been the Mrs. Lovett; I won't pay to see Helena Bonham Carter in anything, but certainly not that. I can't see why she wouldn't have worked in the film of 'Evita' too, since Madonna was too brass tacks and basically small-persona for that role.