Ever since she seized Broadway stardom by the throat in her career-making turn as “Evita” in 1979, Patti LuPone has made it clear the footlights are her lifeblood. So it’s unsurprising that this indomitable performer connects fiercely with Rose, the ultimate spotlight-seeker and mother of all stage mothers. Perhaps even more gratifying is the superb support she’s given by Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti, bringing emotional depth and poignancy to the interplay between the three key characters and making this “Gypsy” an enormously satisfying experience.
Staged for a three-week run as the inaugural presentation in the new Encores! Summer Stars series, this masterfully constructed 1959 show demonstrates in every aspect why it’s generally grouped among the top five works in the American musical-theater canon. Book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim all were working at peak form to create full-bodied characters and richly textured drama of familial dysfunction and showbiz striving — not to mention some of the most indelible songs in Broadway history.
As played by a 25-piece orchestra under the supple direction of Patrick Vaccariello, Styne’s thrilling overture might even be worth the price of admission alone, firing up from the defining “I had a dream” opening phrase through tender moments to electrifying, brassy highs.
But the production has more going for it than just musical excellence. Director Laurents — who turns 90 next year and who staged Broadway revivals in 1974 with Angela Lansbury and 1989 with Tyne Daly — has made no attempt to reinvent the show. And unlike Bernadette Peters, whose Rose in Sam Mendes’ 2003 staging had a haunted, brittle fragility, LuPone adheres closer to the original Ethel Merman mold of iron-clad, bulldozing determination underscored — until the blazing meltdown of her final number — by only faint glimmers of vulnerability and the gnawing frustration of her own broken dreams.
What Laurents brings, unsurprisingly, is complete understanding of the material, never flinching from the dark, unsettling hues of a story about an overbearing, borderline-abusive monster.
Likewise, LuPone refuses to soften Rose’s blunt edges, making the pathos of her ultimate self-acknowledgement and isolation after she pushes everyone else away more acute. Rose’s hunger to realize her dream blinds her to the needs of her family as she drives them tirelessly onward, keeping their act alive even as vaudeville chokes and dies around them.
From her first entrance, ordering “Sing out, Louise,” as she marches up the orchestra aisle and sweeps onto the stage, steamrolling the hapless impresario behind Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show into dazed submission, LuPone’s Rose lets nothing and no one get in her way. She’s clearly aware it’s too late for her to achieve her own stardom but is undaunted in pursuing it vicariously through her girls. Her angry need to escape her dreary Seattle home for vaudeville success is made palpable in her first number, “Some People.”
Laurents deftly points up the steep personal cost of Rose’s crusade by reflecting it most painfully in the people closest to her.
Her bratty favored daughter June (Sami Gayle, later Leigh Ann Larkin) is pushed hardest due to her perceived talent, and her increasing suffocation and resentment make her sudden flight inevitable. Louise (Emma Rowley, later Benanti) is more docile and loyal, awkwardly aware of her lack of talent and ill-at-ease onstage yet helpless to resist Rose’s fearsome will. Denied the chance to grow from childhood to adolescence by a mother who insists her girls remain under-10 to keep their kiddie act intact, Louise is heartbreaking singing “I wonder how old I am” in “Little Lamb.”
Laurents’ staging at times could be more fluid, notably as demure Louise transitions from her first, nervous burlesque appearance to sexy sophistication when she becomes celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But Benanti emerges, butterfly-like, from her cocoon with grace and glamour, casting off her gawky early appearance — in baggy tomboyish outfits and unflattering braids — to take full command as she claims ownership of her life and shoves her mother aside.
Adding considerably to the show’s heart is Gaines’ soulful Herbie, the agent who wants only to slow down, settle into a normal life and be Rose’s fourth husband — the one that sticks.
His flashes of backbone convey that there’s more to Herbie than the meek mouse he’s willing to be around Rose, and his integrity and compassion are played off expertly against her manipulative single-mindedness. From their initial meeting in which Rose pauses for breath for the first time, becoming suddenly flirtatious in a lovely rendition of “Small World,” there’s a delicate chemistry between Gaines and LuPone.
The most wrenching scenes are the ones in which devastation washes across Benanti and Gaines’ faces as their fleeting hopes that Rose will accept defeat and give up on her quest are deflated. The production’s strongest attribute is that the love holding these three characters together is as deeply etched as the forces pulling them apart. Numbers illustrating that affection, “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” and “Together,” are charming.
Elsewhere in the cast, Laurents coaxes engaging work from young members Rowley, Gayle, Kyrian Friedenberg, Matthew Loberhofer and Andy Richardson in the ghastly “Baby June and Her Newsboys” show. Tony Yazbeck does a smooth song-and-dance job on “All I Need is the Girl.” And as the trio of long-in-the-tooth strippers, Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel and Marilyn Caskey deliver an uproarious “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” with Opel moonlighting drolly in act one as an Eve Arden-esque entrepreneur’s secretary.
James Youmans’ stock sets, with their tattered backdrops and shabby painted flats, are more serviceable than inspired, but they evoke the faded magic of a vaudeville circuit well past its prime, as does the dusty patina of Howell Binkley’s lighting. And Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes add definition to the characters.
But the success of any production of “Gypsy” is determined primarily by its Rose. LuPone earns her place in the pantheon of the role’s memorable interpreters, nailing the brash comedy, the cruel tyranny, the child-like need for attention and, finally, the crushing disappointment.
No other character in musical theater is given such volcanically expressive twin showstoppers at the close of both acts. LuPone may belt a little unrelentingly for some tastes, and underselling is certainly not her trademark. But in both the deluded triumph of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and the shattered self-exposure of “Rose’s Turn,” when she finally acknowledges all her clawing at success has been for herself, she’s mesmerizing.