Somewhere in the massive trunk of theatrical wit and wisdom that is “Gypsy,” there’s a line for every showbiz occasion. For the highly anticipated new Broadway revival directed by Sam Mendes, it would be a paraphrase of a song title from the first act: All it needs is a Rose. Mendes’ vivid and stylish production has a lot going for it, in fact almost everything except the one element this musical can’t comfortably do without: a galvanizing performance in the central role. The controversial casting of the downy-soft Bernadette Peters as the flinty Mama Rose proves to be, as many had feared, a miscalculation that all this talented performer’s hard work simply cannot overcome.
The choice of Peters was an acknowledged risk. Book writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Mendes knew Peters’ image and performing style didn’t necessarily fit the standard for Mama Rose, the stage mother from hell who drives her daughters away in pursuit of a dream of stardom that she cannot bring herself to acknowledge as her own. The admirable idea was to seek out a new interpretation for this celebrated character, one of the great roles in the American musical canon: To accentuate her womanly qualities as opposed to her monstrous ones, to give us a more rounded, seductive, human-scaled Mama Rose.
Peters’ naturally warm presence and period-perfect face certainly bring some intriguing new dimensions to the character. This Rose might indeed have made it big in showbiz if given the chance, and her baby-doll features hauntingly suggest the hopeful little girl inside the driven, disappointed woman. With Peters in the role, we can imagine that Baby June’s cutie-pie persona has been synthesized to replicate the adorable child her mother probably once was. And Peters, as expected, plays up Rose’s purring femininity, making Herbie’s infatuation with her more understandable than it often is: Her kittenish performance of “Small World” is seductive indeed.
But it’s really when Mama Rose is most monstrous that she’s most compelling — and, paradoxically, most human. Those chilling, character-defining scenes, in which Rose’s determination to hound her daughters into stardom overrides a mother’s loving instincts, tend to slip by in Peters’ performance almost imperceptibly. The big moments register small. Peters bellows Rose’s demands and objections in a nasal snarl as circumstances require, but there’s somehow no conviction in her steeliness. The desperation and need that drive her are dutifully sketched in, suggested, but never made palpable. The performance has little emotional force.
Theater historians might point out that Ethel Merman, who created the role, wasn’t exactly known for her expressive acting. (Didn’t Sondheim himself famously disparage her as a “singing dog”?) Duse she wasn’t. But subsequent interpreters of the role, notably Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly on Broadway, have set the bar higher. And Merman, one assumes, had a powerful charisma that helped to compensate for any acting deficiencies. Peters is a more delicate presence, and while the actress is in fine vocal form, in her efforts to sell her big songs she often lapses into repetitive, generic Broadway gestures — splayed hands stabbing at the sky — that are aimed too squarely at wowing the audience.
Most audiences, of course, will be content to be wowed, and will find Peters’ perfectly competent and freshly funny perf entirely satisfactory. In any case, the allure of “Gypsy” certainly does not all rest with Rose. Mendes has assembled a terrific supporting cast, led by Tammy Blanchard, best known for her Emmy-winning turn as the young Judy Garland in a 2001 ABC telepic, as a touching Louise. She is convincingly awkward and plain in the early scenes, blazingly beautiful when she shimmies through the long sequence in which this tentative teen struts her way to stardom on a series of burlesque stages.
In this thrillingly staged number, the miniature prosceniums that are a hallmark of Anthony Ward’s inventive sets expand to fill the stage for the first time. Previously, Mendes had always shown us Mama Rose, visible in the wings, urging the girls on in their gradually decaying vaudeville routines. She was a constant presence, helping Baby June into a finale costume or chasing one of the boys’ stray hats. Then, suddenly, once Gypsy achieves stardom, Rose is pushed offstage, erased from the picture.
In general, Mendes’ production doesn’t take notable liberties with the material, but provides an artful frame for it. The overriding metaphor is theatrical: A backstage set, lit with infinite nuance by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, surrounds every scene until Gypsy’s apotheosis, underscoring the idea that for Rose and her troupers, the theater was the world and the world was the theater.
Those troupers include, first and foremost, star attraction Baby June. She is played, hilariously, like a yapping trained poodle in the early scenes by Heather Tepe, and later with a deliciously disgruntled edge by Kate Reinders, who whips out a cigarette from under her frilly frock in a moment of exasperation. David Burtka is an endearing, bright-eyed Tulsa; if his dancing in “All I Need Is the Girl” is not precisely virtuosic, Burtka makes up for it with his exuberance. John Dossett is an appealingly sincere Herbie with a palpably soft heart.
As the trio of strippers who instruct Louise in the fine art of the bump and grind, Kate Buddeke (a battle-ax Mazeppa), Heather Lee (a sweet-tempered Tessie Tura) and Julie Halston (a hilariously zonked Electra) just about stop the second act cold with “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” But then this is the rare Broadway score that is really unstoppable: the songs are like a string of perfect pearls, polished to a bright glow by music director Marvin Laird.
And yet accomplished and lively as the production is, it cannot do full justice to the material without a powerful performance in the central role. This “Gypsy” is an amiable and entertaining backstage comedy, but it doesn’t evolve into an archetypal story about the universal human need to be loved, as the finest productions can. Mama Rose is a great character because she embodies, on a grand scale, the human hunger for the warmth of the spotlight — any spotlight. That this hunger is instilled by the kind of emotional neglect Mama Rose also ladles out is the disorienting irony that gives the show its perpetual fascination.
Peters herself began performing as a child. She’s spent a life on the emotional roller-coaster that is showbiz, and no doubt knows its pleasures and pains intimately. Her delivery of Rose’s exhausted moment of revelation — her bewildered admission that she “just wanted to be noticed” — is deeply affecting, maybe her finest moment in the show. But there is a lot more to Rose than this poignant moment of recognition. In a fascinating profile recently in the New York Times, Peters talked about her early days on the road — in a production of “Gypsy,” yet — and her very own Mama Rose. She was at pains to point out that her mother was cut from softer cloth. But perhaps Peters’ inability to dig into the darker aspects of her character stems from a natural reticence about her own experience. The performance may not be the triumph we’d hoped for, but it’s easy to forgive an actress’s reluctance to play her mother as a monster.