Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Another Turn at Bat for the Mother Who Just Won’t Quit

By Josh R
In baseball, a batter who resists the urge to swing on bad pitches, and fights off the good ones by blocking them into foul territory, is known as a tough out. Since professional athletes don’t hold a monopoly on grit, fortitude, or all-around stubbornness, any Major League scout (or theatrical agent) who caught Rose Hovick in action would be forced to concede that she was the toughest out to ever step up to the plate. To her intimates and her adversaries — circles featuring more in the way of overlap than one might be given to suppose — she was an immovable object, as implacably determined as she was mercilessly unyielding, unable to sanction any cession of terrain she considered hers by right. The indefatigable, hard-driving Ms. Hovick, it must be stated by way of explanation, suffered from that peculiar affliction known to show business types as ‘The Bug.’ After having experienced that first, intoxicating whiff of greasepaint — a more addictive substance than cocaine for those desirous of attention — she pursued her dreams of vaudeville glory for her two hapless daughters with the monolithic intensity of Admiral Farragut leading the charge at Mobile Bay. Obstacles were of little consequence; regardless of the circumstances, Mama never loosened her iron grip on the footlights for a fraction of a second. Performers who won’t leave the stage of their own volition are generally given the hook — in Rose’s case, it would have taken the combined efforts of a scalpel and a bulldozer to dislodge her from her perch.

Gypsy, the classic backstage musical chronicling the exploits and escapades of Mama Rose and her brood (and loosely based on the memoirs of her eldest, celebrity stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), has demonstrated nearly as much intransigent staying power as its central character when faced with the unthinkable prospect of surrendering the spotlight. The current Broadway incarnation, strutting its flashy stuff across the boards of The St. James Theatre in an open-ended engagement, marks the fourth Main Stem revival of the show since its 1959 premiere, and the fifth Broadway production overall. As if that weren’t enough, it has also spawned two award-winning film adaptations, and a seemingly countless number of regional, stock and touring productions. With its knockout score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim and hardscrabble libretto by Arthur Laurents, there’s a fair argument than can — and has — been made for it as the greatest musical ever written; even allowing for differences in taste, it’s in just about everyone’s top five. Certainly, no musical has ever provided as probing a portrait of a woman driven to extremes by her simple inability to accept compromise or defeat, or rendered with such piercing clarity the prickly dynamics of parent-child relationships. In the years since Ethel Merman originated the role with her signature blend of brass and vocal virtuosity, the character of Rose has come to represent the summit for actresses working in musical theater — as well as the single greatest test of their abilities and barometer of their star power. It’s not just that Merman’s legendary vocal interpretation is the yardstick by which all other Roses are measured, or that the part makes more demands of its interpreters’ dramatic skills than musicals generally do. Seemingly every classically trained English-speaking stage actor born in the past four hundred years has taken a pass at Lear; If you have any hopes of ever seeing a ‘Sir’ in front of your name, it’s the litmus test which separates the men from the boys. Rose is likewise a role of Shakespearean proportions — and one that comes with the baggage of equally weighty expectations, and just as high a factor of risk.

The roster of ambitious climbers either brave or foolhardy enough to attempt to scale the peaks of Mount Rose constitutes a virtual Who’s Who of Broadway leading ladies; it includes Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly, both of whom won Tonys for their interpretations, while in the last 10 years modern legends Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley have each taken their crack at it. The latest heavyweight to enter the ring is Patti LuPone, she of the rabid fan base and earth-shaking vibrato. The marquee at the St. James Theatre proclaims that Rose is the role Ms. LuPone was born to play, and going strictly by surface appearances (and considerations of decibel levels), the assertion is not without merit. With her bold, Italianate features and clarion voice, the actress has always been a commanding presence. Harking back to her Tony-winning turn in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita — the poperetta anvil on which her star was forged — she has always favored a performance style characterized by strident affectation and a tendency to show off; in the field of vocal pyrotechnics, she has been the undisputed standard bearer on Broadway for more than a generation. It's worth wondering if she's ever been entirely able to shake the role of Eva Peron; aspects of that performance and persona may have bled into her subsequent efforts. Certainly, she has stardust in her bloodstream (and possibly some of that Merman DNA), a strong sense of theatricality, and the confident swagger of a woman to be reckoned with. These are qualities that can work for Rose when administered in the proper dosages. Ultimately, they are no substitute for emotional authenticity, or the ability to create a real sense of the conflicted feelings, primal instincts and inchoate yearnings that make Mama one of the richest and mostly intricately layered characters ever created for the musical stage.

Watching Ms. LuPone in action on the stage of the St. James — in a performance that is never less than vivid — there is never any doubt that she is connecting to the thorny Rose as a star role. Only at select intervals, and never for any sustained length of time, does she seem to be connecting to her as a character. The actress is a much more logical and natural choice for the assignment than that eternal nymphet with the fizzy champagne pop, the kittenish Bernadette Peters, who played the part a scant five years ago and couldn’t avoid seeming a bit out of her depth (moral: never send a kitten to do a tigress’s job). What Ms. Peters more convincingly conveyed than her successor was an acute awareness of the peculiar forces that drove Mama; namely, the need to experience vicarious fulfillment through her daughters’ success, and the barely suppressed rage of someone all too achingly aware of her own lost opportunities. Ms. LuPone brings a considerable amount of star power to her depiction of Rose, to be sure — it’s a Diva performance that commands the spotlight without going over the top — but it exists mostly on the surface, without bringing the internal life of the character into sharp focus. There’s something rather smug and arch about the way she embellishes the role with so many flourishes; her cadence of speech suggests Katharine Cornell as Cleopatra giving grand speeches and occasional orders to the servants. With her cultured style of delivery, it doesn’t really make sense when Rose uses words like “ain’t”; she sounds like she ought to be walking around with a martini in one hand and a long-stemmed cigarette holder in the other. Of more critical concern, the anger, the need, and the despair that have to be present in order for the character to make sense can only be discerned in fits and starts. As a result, the show seems to be less about a woman determined to make her daughters into stars than one determined to win a Tony Award.

Unfortunately, if perhaps inevitably, this constitutes a conspicuous, ultimately insurmountable liability for Arthur Laurents’ otherwise fine production. Mama’s roiling emotions, tinged with shades of bitterness and regret, have always been the motor that makes Gypsy run. Without that driving force behind it, what ought to sprint across the track with the smooth assurance of a thoroughbred feels more like an old warhorse straining for the finish line. The 90-year-old Mr. Laurents, who also helmed the Lansbury and Daly productions, has cited his displeasure with the deconstructionist tactics of Sam Mendes' 2003 revival — the one that the brave Ms. Peters did her damnedest to put over — as the reason he decided to mount another Gypsy so soon after the show's last swing around the maypole. In its restored form, it is not without its share of incidental pleasures; and yet, it can’t avoid feeling like a cookie-cutter production without any strong point of view. This is a faithful, diligent rendering by a seasoned director who knows his source material inside and out — as one of its authors, he couldn’t have been counted upon for anything less. That said, without a visceral, emotionally convincing central performance to anchor the proceedings, the resulting rendition feels stale, rudderless, and lacking in excitement.

This is an especially sad turn of events given how very, very good Ms. LuPone’s co-stars are — and the extent to which their efforts are undercut by the production’s flaws. As Rose’s immoderately forbearing suitor, Boyd Gaines is the most persuasively rendered Herbie I’ve seen, and delivers the evening’s most shaded and moving performance. As the chief beneficiary of her mother’s scratching, clawing drive for success, Laura Benanti is in splendid vocal form as Louise, and convincingly charts her character’s progress from insecure wallflower to glittering sex queen; her crystalline violet eyes, a ringer for Liz Taylor’s, have never been used to more seductive effect. Strange as it may seem, this is the rare production of Gypsy in which the relationship between Herbie and Louise becomes the show’s most compelling consideration. Mr. Gaines and Ms. Benanti expertly communicate the strained dynamic between the would-be family man, tentatively, somewhat wistfully trying to reach out to his surrogate daughter and concealing his sadness and hurt every time she pushes him away, and the lonely adolescent too gun-shy from years of disappointment to allow herself to become attached to yet another disposable father figure. Additional praise should be conferred upon Leigh Ann Larkin as an unusually hard-boiled, clear-eyed June — a sweet-looking little blonde made cynical by years of living life on Mama’s terms and being treated like a wind-up toy.

As fine as they are, all three actors are hampered by the fact that their relationships with Rose aren’t particularly convincing. That’s because Ms. LuPone herself isn’t particularly convincing, at least when it comes to connecting with the emotions that fuel the character’s actions and define her motives. There’s an inescapable impression that what we’re seeing is the ambition and neediness of Patti LuPone, the star, as to opposed to that of Rose Hovick, the woman. Judging by the enthusiastic response of the audience on the night I attended Gypsy, this may not matter very much; the performance Ms. Lupone is giving is undoubtedly the one her fans have been clamoring for, and the one they’re only too happy to receive. There is no denying her power as a vocalist — Styne and Sondheim’s show-stopping compositions fall right in her wheelhouse, and she delivers them with the razzle-dazzle showmanship of the sort that send diva-cultists into fits of swoony delight. Nor can it be said that her interpretation lacks anything in the way of personality; she puts her own, brash stamp on the part, and never creates the impression of being anything less than the star that she is. Personally, I’d have been just as happy if she’d been a bit more sparing with the star quality, if it meant clearing a path for a performance with greater emotional resonance. Ms. LuPone is well-cast, well-suited and eminently well-equipped to knock this baby out of the park; even if her dramatic skills are not to all tastes, she’s where she is for a reason. Old-school Broadway stars are a dying breed; that the actress has maintained her status as one for nearly 30 years says volumes about her determination and power of endurance, to say nothing of her talent. Rose Hovick was a tough out. So is Patti LuPone. Strange then, that what ought to have been a home run feels more like a swing and a miss.

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The only stage Gypsy I've seen was the Paper Mill production with Betty Buckley and she was far too vulnerable throughout to make a good Rose (The same problem with her Norma in Sunset Blvd., though that show sucked regardless).
The 1990 Tyne Daly revival remains the best production I've seen. Even though her singing skills posed no threat to the likes of Merman or LuPone, Daly was tremendous on the acting front.
I saw this "Gypsy" at Encores in 2007 and couldn't agree more with the assessment of Lupone. She was a whirling dervish of diva-ness, but I had the impression that if her fellow cast members had emailed their performances in it wouldn't have mattered to dear Patti. It was all about her, not the character of Rose, not the show, not her fellow performers. I disliked Lupone in the extreme.
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