Remounting “Gypsy” for TV is no easy task. It requires guts to put on a musical in the face of general public apathy toward the form. It also takes faithfulness to the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim classic score, staging that won’t get lost in TV’s 19-inch landscape and, most important, an actress in the role of Mama Rose with the charisma and skill to make viewers forget Ethel Merman, who originated and defined the part. This new production, headed by Bette Midler in the role she was born to play, succeeds on those counts and sets itself up as a potential holiday perennial.
Midler’s Rose is explosive, riveting and impossible, yet impossible not to love. Younger and feistier than Merman’s Rose, with much of the insanity that marked Tyne Daly’s 1989 stage revival, Midler presents a stage mother who loves and tortures her two daughters with equal vigor. In the early going, she relies a bit too heavily on her live-show shtick, emphasizing Rose’s humor over her menacing intensity. She’s funny and spirited as she woos skeptical Herbie (Peter Riegert) and as she relentlessly pushes her daughters (Cynthia Gibb and Jennifer Beck as the adult Louise and June, respectively) through their none-too-thrilling act.
Still, you can’t help falling for Rose as she stands in the wings miming Baby June (Lacey Chabert) and Baby Louise’s (Elisabeth Moss) act. Midler makes you feel the agony of this frustrated performer, forced to hector her girls into being her surrogate.
But Midler really hits her stride when June abandons the act, forcing Rose to turn to the resilient but reluctant — and not particularly talented — Louise. Bouncing back from this latest of many abandonments, Rose sings the show-stopping “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” leaving the audience — to say nothing of Louise and Herbie — breathless at her spirit and terrified by her increasingly obvious mental instability.
Standing out next to this bravura performance is no simple task, but this ensemble is largely successful. Riegert holds his own against Midler as the mostly meek Herbie, even showing off decent vocal chops on a couple of numbers. Christine Ebersole, Linda Hart and Anna McNeely are delicious as the strippers who inform Louise that “You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick.”
And Gibb gives a star-making performance as Louise. Although overshadowed by Rose, Louise is in some ways a harder part to play; she needs to seem an inept wallflower who blossoms into a confident, beautiful Rose Louise — later dubbed Gypsy Rose Lee as she embarks on her stripping career. Gibb pulls this off skillfully, conveying the character’s inner goodness, strength andpain.
The only problem, ironically, is that Gibb is too pretty — even as Louise, wearing the front half of a cow costume — which takes away some of the impact from her metamorphosis into Gypsy.
Accomplished actors such as Edward Asner, Andrea Martin, Michael Jeter and Tony Shalhoub show up with what are basically cameos: They must have been thrilled to be associated with this classy production. Rocker-turned-actress Rachel Sweet, meanwhile, makes the most of her small role as the weepy, squeaky-voiced Agnes.
This fifth major production of the backstage musical about the early life of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (Rosalind Russell starred in the 1962 film version and Angela Lansbury headed the 1971 stage revival) also works by staying faithful to the can’t-miss material — including Arthur Laurents’ witty book and original director Jerome Robbins’ choreography. There’s no attempt to modernize the presentation, no forced effort to bend the material to bring in the MTV audience, no needless attempt to open up the stage show beyond the confines of the theater stage.
Instead, the late Emile Ardolino employs an effective yet inconspicuous directing style that simply lets the TV audience watch the show from the best seats in the house. You watch from a comfortable distance the cheesy act by Dainty June and her Farm Boys, a convincing argument for the death of vaudeville. And you see the agony and desire in Louise’s face up close as Farm Boy Tulsa sings and dances “All I Need Is the Girl,” one of the show’s highlights.
Jackson De Govia’s production design and Ralf Bode’s cinematography present the story in the quasi-reality of soundstage-set productions.
The not-quite-real feel is perfectly suited to this hard to imagine yet fact-based story of that most resilient of impossible dreams: showbiz success. An even bigger dream — and bigger joy — is the resurrection of the legendary Broadway show in the unlikely venue of network television. To paraphrase Rose, it leaves you feeling swell, feeling great.