Everyone remembers a great musical by its songs, but the key to a really great musical, and arguably the hardest part to get right, is the book. It needs to feed the narrative and develop the characters and their relationships without decelerating the momentum, leaving you tapping your foot impatiently waiting for the orchestra to spark up again. Watching Arthur Laurents’ riveting revival of the show he wrote and premiered in 1959, it’s clear that “Gypsy” has the dramatic vertebrae of a superior species. This is not your everyday canned tuner; in this production it’s an incisively acted musical play with as much emotional resonance as showbiz pizzazz.
Every production of “Gypsy” inevitably is defined by the actress playing Rose, the pushy stage mother shoving her daughters from childhood through late adolescence around a vaudeville circuit that’s dying out from under them, in a vain quest to feel the warmth of the spotlight she craves for herself. The equivalent of “King Lear” for musical theater divas of a certain age, the role has been filled on Broadway by Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters, whose bruised kewpie-doll fragility made her the most unorthodox fit for the Dina Lohan prototype.
In the show’s fourth Rialto revival and its second this decade, Patti LuPone reverts to something closer to the traditional model of brassy nerve, indomitable strength and utter shamelessness. But like all the key performances in a production notable for the penetrating depth of its characterizations, she’s never without heart.
Her Rose loves her daughters and her would-be husband, even as she remains stubbornly indifferent to the ways in which she exploits, steamrolls and sidelines them. She’s driven and indefatigable yet LuPone never allows her to become a gorgon. The sad flickers of regret, defeat, weariness and betrayal — of which she’s both victim and perpetrator — that briefly settle across her face reveal just as much about this woman as her barking orders and brusque manners. As the instantly smitten Herbie (Boyd Gaines) puts it, she’s “like a pioneer woman without a frontier.”
At 58 (older than any of her Broadway predecessors in the role), LuPone’s voice remains a powerful instrument with an expansive range of expressiveness. In “Some People,” she’s jumpy and defiant as she chafes against the threat of a humdrum life. In her duets with Herbie, “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” she melts into flirtatiousness but never jettisons her knowing edge. In “Together Wherever We Go,” with Herbie and daughter Louise (Laura Benanti), she’s a joyful clown.
But it’s her twin showstoppers that crescendo at the close of each act that cement LuPone’s performance as one for the history books. Lending credibility to Louise’s claim that her mother can make herself believe anything she dreams up, Rose re-gathers her composure after the defection of June (Leigh Ann Larkin), the daughter she has tried unsuccessfully to propel to stardom. Undaunted, she turns the setback into a cockeyed triumph in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
Despite the warped willpower evident in this number, however, it’s nothing compared to the emotional tour de force of “Rose’s Turn.” Hauntingly backdropped by lighting designer Howell Binkley’s dusty, film-noirish shadows, this shattering breakdown song both sweeps away and reinforces Rose’s self-delusion that her struggle for fame was for her daughters and not for herself.
Well before popular entertainments started regularly smashing the American dream, “Gypsy” depicted a failed family unit in which no one really gets what they want. Rose is cruelly denied the spotlight, Herbie never gets the chance to be a husband, June has to sever ties in order to liberate herself from her maniacal mother, and having never fully felt Rose’s love and approval, Louise must settle for the adulation of an audience of strangers, as she blossoms from untalented tomboy to stripper extraordinaire Gypsy Rose Lee.
Echoed in the tattered curtains, beat-up proscenium and cheap painted flats of James Youman’s set, the melancholy textures of this story and the vanished world it depicts are beautifully etched by Laurents and a cast that wisely refuses to contemporize their approach to roles anchored in another time.
Gaines is no spineless mouse as Herbie, but a profoundly decent man with a deep well of dignity. His chemistry with LuPone is evident from their first moments together, and the scene in which he finally has to acknowledge the insurmountable obstacle of her nature and summon the strength to act is heartbreaking.
Likewise Louise’s long-brewing confrontation with her mother. Benanti is enormously moving as she absorbs one hurt after another through the show, pulled along like a rag doll in her mother’s wake, initially second-string to her sister and then reluctantly shanghaied into headlining. When she emerges like a butterfly — nervously at first, then with spiraling confidence — from her baggy, unflattering clothes into the winking sophistication and toned, willowy body of the striptease artiste, the audience is celebrating her bittersweet independence along with her.
Larkin’s characterization is similarly full-bodied. Stomping around like a petulant brat, and lighting up on cue — but with increasing resentment — into an ear-to-ear smile, June is a sad, trapped figure, grotesque as she gets too old for her babyish role in the tacky vaudeville act, but always human. The unbalanced but nonetheless tangible sisterly bond between June and Louise is touchingly conveyed in “If Momma Was Married,” while the unconventional family ties extend also to the boys that round out the act. Most prominent among them, Tony Yazbeck exhibits unforced charm and grace, channeling Fred Astaire in Tulsa’s “All I Need Is the Girl.”
As comic numbers go, it’s hard to top the veteran strippers’ instructional “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” riotously performed by cartoon-voiced Alison Fraser, bullish Lenora Nemetz and a hilarious, barely mobile Marilyn Caskey.
The physical production is not significantly different from the show’s three-week Encores! run last summer. Bonnie Walker efficiently reproduces Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, including the still-effective flickering fast-forward device used to age up the kids while they work the circuit year after year. Biggest surprise is the richness of the 25-piece orchestra, which does full justice to Jule Styne’s marvelous score and Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler’s impeccable orchestrations, and never drowns the wit and sensitivity in Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics.
In a staging that’s lovingly old-fashioned yet full of vitality and nuance, the most significant change Laurents has introduced is a melodramatic flourish at the end, which feels perhaps redundant but nonetheless serves to plant the focus back on Rose’s tragedy and her inextinguishable dreams as the curtain falls. The writer-director, who turns 90 in July, has announced that after a breather, he’ll start work on a Broadway-bound revival of “West Side Story” for next year. If his latest “Gypsy” is an indication of what to expect, I can’t wait.