Mere seconds before the first act curtain goes down on the new Encores! production of Gypsy, certainly the most breathtaking, emotionally packed evening of damn near perfect musical theatre in town, Patti LuPone makes a simple cross from upstage to downstage center as she sings the final lines of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," that extraordinary Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim theatre song that seems a joyous celebration out of context but is in actuality a terrifying proclamation. Up to this point, her beautifully balanced performance as Rose Hovick, the single mother who, like so many parents of her time, pushed her children into a vaudeville career with dreams of stardom and wealth, was filled with humor, pathos, flirtatiousness and a touch of goofiness that gave a multi-dimensional texture to the character's blind determination to see her daughter June become a star at any cost. But in those final moments of Act I, after Rose discovers that June has had it with momma's crazy dreams and has run off to get married, LuPone summons up the uglier demons within Rose that most decent people keep buried underneath. Her fists clutched in front of her chest and her wide gait staggering as though physically beaten, she bitterly forces out, "Everything's coming up roses for me ," as her would-be suitor Herbie (Boyd Gaines) clutches her trembling "untalented" daughter Louise (Laura Benanti) in a protective hug. They can't see the horrific expression on her face, like a dazed and bloodied over-matched boxer who refuses to go down, and the audience barely has a chance to take in the raw emotion before the curtain quickly falls.
In any other production of Gypsy such a performance might be considered the dramatic zenith. But this production also has LuPone's "Rose's Turn," where the gaping wound of her loneliness is exposed with such vicious honesty that it would be impossible to watch in real life. The bile with which she groans out the word "leaves," recalling the parade of loved ones she drove away with her ambitions, and the painful growl of her ultimate "For me!" may seem overdone coming from a lesser actress, but under the direction of the show's bookwriter, Arthur Laurents, who draws vivid acting performances from throughout his exceptional company, LuPone makes an impeccable progression from an amusingly pushy jazz baby to a heartbroken woman who has seen every dream of hers crushed.
The inaugural production of the Encores! Summer Stars series, this Gypsy lies somewhere between their normal concert mountings and a complete staging. The text has been mildly abridged, but the actors don't carry their scripts in hand. James Youmans' set doesn't exactly fill the stage, but when combined with Martin Pakledinaz's costumes and Howell Binkley's lights, the visuals suitably convey a sense of crumbling theatrical nostalgia. Conductor Patrick Vaccariello's 25-piece orchestra has been pushed upstage and is masked for most of the performance; not the best choice for a show that frequently makes reference to an orchestra playing in the pit. Also, the amplification takes the textures away from Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler's dynamic orchestrations, most noticeably in the overture one of Broadway's best where all the instruments seem to be coming from the same wall of sound.
But what makes this Gypsy so gripping and entertaining is the extraordinary chemistry between the star and her two main supporting players, whose performances are just as interesting and fully realized. As the introverted Louise who would eventually become world famous as strip-tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, Laura Benanti is first noticed with a genuinely touching rendering of "Little Lamb," ending with a tragic and tearful expression of the song's final lines. As circumstances force Louise into the spotlight, we gradually sense that she has developed her mother's sense of humor and forceful nature, combined with a sexual intelligence that makes her rise to burlesque stardom an instantly comfortable fit. Watching a Louise strong enough to match a force such as LuPone's Rose makes their second act confrontation sizzle, and that troublesome final scene so necessary, but so difficult to nail coming right after "Rose's Turn" gives the drama its perfect closure.
Boyd Gaines' weary Herbie carries hints of a dark edge as though his willingness to let Rose walk all over him comes from a suppression of violent tendencies from his past. Though Gaines makes it clear that being with Rose has restored a sense of warmth and joy to Herbie's lonely life as a traveling candy salesman, his self-defacing comments about what a real man would do in his situation land as grim warnings. It's a fascinating interpretation of a role that is rarely played with such subtext.
Leigh Ann Larkin's very effective performance as Dainty June seems to be drawn from her line, "I'm not Fanny Brice!" in the duet "If Momma Was Married," for judging from her character's on-stage performances (by both Larkin and Sami Gayle as her younger self) it seems Rose is trying to mold her into a broad comedienne who can later bring an audience to tears. She's a resentful icicle off-stage, speaking in her unschooled interpretation of highbrow, actorly tones at one point seeming to take a Brechtian approach to a simple conversation with her sister.
The trio of gimmicky strippers Alison Fraser as the arty Tessie Tura, Nancy Opel as the brassy Mazeppa and Marilyn Caskey as the deadpan Electra bring the proceedings to an uproarious halt with their hilarious trio and Tony Yazbeck brings a smooth, understated charm to his song and dance, "All I Need Is The Girl." Bonnie Walker reproduces Jerome Robbins' legendary choreography.
Although its last Broadway revival closed only three years ago, like Hamlet, Swan Lake and La Traviata, there's really no such thing as too many productions of Gypsy. The stunning artistry of musical theatre is smelling like a rose at City Center.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Patti LuPone
3rd: Laura Benanti
Bottom: Patti LuPone