Thursday, April 03, 2008

Gypsy (The SOB Review)

Gypsy (The SOB Review) - St. James Theatre, New York, NY

**** (out of ****)

Gangway world, get off of my superlatives!

Suddenly, highfalutin words like excellent, superb and top-notch just don't seem sufficient enough to adequately describe the unique experience of seeing the incredible Arthur Laurents-helmed revival of Gypsy that opened last week at the Great White Way's St. James Theatre.

If ever there was a Broadway show worth taking in, this is it. Never have I enjoyed myself more or been so thoroughly entertained by a Rialto musical experience ever. This is most definitely a performance for the ages. To see it is to witness theatrical history being made.

Granted, I'm a little biased when it comes to the masterpiece tuner created in 1959 by Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). Ever since first seeing it performed over 30 years ago, it has ranked as my all-time favorite musical. I've never resisted taking in a staging, whether on Broadway or as presented by local theatrical companies or even in high schools.

The timeless music, buttressed by the extraordinarily well-told story suggested by the memoirs of the 20th Century's most famous ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, makes for one of the most entertaining evenings one could possibly hope for in live theatre -- if only it's done right. I've now seen it enough times to tell the good from the bad, but nothing prepared me for the new, unsurpassed heights which Mr. Laurents and his exceptional cast have successfully achieved.

Not even my 2006 visit to Chicagoland's Ravinia where Patti LuPone first triumphed as Mama Rose. At the time, I enthusiastically cheered:

Instead of an over-the-top Mama that's all too easy to do, LuPone proffered an exquisitely nuanced performance that simultaneously excited and repulsed, making one of Broadway’s most memorable roles hers for keeps.
* * *
Near the end, LuPone took her devastated Rose to new heights with an unforgettable, heart-wrenched rendering of “Rose’s Turn,” which proved to be, quite literally, a showstopper of the first order.
* * *
But when (not if) the time comes to bring Gypsy back to the Great White Way, savvy producers should do everything they can to lure Patti LuPone back to the role she was born to play.
Many said it would never happen. That it was too soon after the last revival. That Arthur Laurents would never allow LuPone to take on his single greatest creation. And so on.

Thankfully, the naysayers had it all wrong.

While I stand by my earlier review, the beauty of this fully-realized Broadway revival is that every breathtaking performance from start to finish matches LuPone, who has only intensified her portrayal of the stage mother from hell, making her Rose at once sympathetic, conniving, sexy, funny, tragic and repulsive all at the same time.

But the revelation in Laurents' brilliantly directed revival is how careful he is in drawing out every character, lovingly shaping them well beyond the caricatures other productions have let suffice. To be honest, I don't know which portrayal I found more poignant -- the stunning metamorphosis of Louise offered by Laura Benanti in her best performance yet, or the completely credible, quiet dignity in Boyd Gaines' sympathetic take on Herbie.

As Louise, Benanti begins as a doe-eyed innocent, always eager to please, never fathoming her hidden talents or beauty. To watch her transition to the world's most famous stripper is to witness a major star claiming her rightful place in the spotlight. (For me, personally, it was also one of those "only in live theatre" moments when Benanti locked eyes with mine as I sat in Row B Seat 101 and then seductively asked whether I knew what an ecdysiast is. Oh, Laura, do I ever.)

Gaines' Herbie rates as the best I've ever seen as well, commencing from a man who was clearly charmed by Rose's tenacity long before she even knew who he was and deftly takes him through the range of emotions of a man who will always love her, but yearns for a new life as a family man before his personal shelf-life expiration date arrives.

Then there's the amazingly unholy trinity found in Lenora Nemetz's Chita Riveraesque Mazeppa (also doubling as the hilarious Miss Cratchitt), Marilyn Caskey's nearly immobile and slyly non-electrifying Electra, and Alison Fraser's tiptoeing Tessie Tura. Again, never before have I seen such distinguishing depth in this triumvirate of characters. And to play them as relics as opposed to fresher faces further isolates Louise's ingenue.

Special mention must also be given to Leigh Ann Larkin for making her June so real, as well as to Tony Yazbeck for adding a debonair dash to Jerome Robbins' stylish choreography all these years later. And bravo to Laurents for showcasing the 25-piece orchestra up on the stage. Thanks to Patrick Vaccariello, Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler's orchestrations never sounded better.

While the 90 year old Laurents' skill could easily have been a career capper, he's already prepared to do for West Side Story what he's done for Gypsy. I for one can't wait.

If you ever wanted to see a classic musical the way it was truly intended to be seen, get to Broadway's St. James Theatre. Make no mistake, come June, everything (with the possible exception of Best Director of a Musical for reasons explained by Michael Riedel) should be coming up Tonys for the best musical ever, period.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Critics On Gypsy: Everything (Almost) Comes Up Roses (March 28, 2008)
Gypsy: Everything's Coming Up Opening Night (March 27, 2008)
Patti Preview: "Brought Down The Roof" .... Literally? (March 4, 2008)
Curtain Up! Light The Lights! (March 3, 2008)
Load-In's Turn (February 24, 2008)
Tag, I'm It! (February 4, 2008)
Laurents' Turn: First Gypsy, Then West Side Story (December 18, 2008)
LuPone's Mama Rose, Part 3? (October 3, 2007)
At 90, Laurents Has Still "Got It" (July 27, 2007)
Everything's Coming Up Patti! (July 9, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Top Ten Of The Year (June 4, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best Revivals Of Musicals (May 18, 2007)
It's Official: LuPone's Triumph Earns Encores! (March 19, 2007)
Will Encores Mount All-Star Gypsy? (March 2, 2007)
SOB's 6 Singular Sensations Of '06 - #1: Patti LuPone (December 30, 2006)
Gypsy (The SOB Review) (August 14, 2006)

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At 03 April, 2008, Blogger karigee said...

Yay! I'm so glad you enjoyed it -- lovely write-up!

At 03 April, 2008, Blogger Alicia said...

I am not surprised that your review of GYPSY is glowing (and thanks for the ecdysiast:Merriam-Webster link, although context gave me a good idea).

I am definitely going to make a point of seeing this. Shockingly, I've never seen GYPSY staged (only the Better Midler movie over 10 years ago). AND I've never seen Ms. LuPone live. Seems to me that with this production those are two nevers that can be righted, quickly and properly.

At 03 April, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

I'm so glad I got to see a four-star show with you and share your excitement, even if I was several rows back!

As soon as I saw where you were sitting, I was so thrilled, because I knew Patti would come marching down the aisle right by your seat! I loved her performance over the summer and I think she's even kicked it up a notch, her Momma Rose seemed even more single-minded, more obsessive, more everything!

Laura Benanti, wow, she undergoes the greatest transformation I've ever seen in the course of a show. I didn't know anything about her, and she was such a revelation the first time around. Her performance was every bit as wonderful the second time around.

I know how much you were looking forward to this, and I'm so glad it exceeded even your greatest expectations!

At 20 May, 2008, Blogger Dale said...

I was in NY on the weekend and saw Gypsy for the first time on Sunday. I'd seen the film but never a live production and I lucked into Row A Seat 107 where a couple of the cast locked eyes.

What a brilliant production, performances and well, you've said it all better than I could. I had to wipe away tears, the intensity and magic right in front of me. I've seen a lot of shows myself and this is up there with the absolute best. Great review.

I also took in The Country Girl and Xanadu so I'm off to see what you've said about them.

At 20 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dale, Sounds as though you had an equally electrifying experience. I'm thrilled!


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