Everything's Coming Up Patti: A Review of Ravinia's Gypsy
For many years the theater community wondered why Tony Award winning actress Patti LuPone had never been cast as Mama Rose in the various revivals of the legendary musical GYPSY. It seemed like this big-voiced diva was so very right for this part in so many ways: vocally, dramatically and physically. Finally, the part and the actress were brought together at Ravinia's Music Festival and the results surpassed expectations. The three performances that were given at this open air venue will not soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance.
From the moment Ms LuPone walked down the aisle, dog in hand, uttering that famous line. "Sing out, Louise!" the audience knew that something special was taking place. Here, the right actress and the right part meshed in an almost super human way which electrified everyone who was in the vicinity. Closer in appearance to the historical Rose Hovick than the other great ladies of the theater who have played the role, Ms LuPone looked smashing in the period costumes created by Tracy Christensen. There's never been any doubt that this petite dynamo could dominate a stage; and here she did it to perfection. She badgered and bossed anyone who stood in the way of her children's' success and this was never more evident than in the scene in the office of Mr. J. J. Ganzinger, LuPone actually seemed to grow in stature as she stood up to the formidable secretary played with equal effectiveness by Rengin Altay. The tension created by the two actresses became palpable as they stood their respective grounds. As effective as the scene was, it was just a harbinger of the dramatic fireworks that were to follow in a musical that is chock full of dramatic tension.
As the plot continued to develop, there were even more dramatic moments that were fully realized by Ms LuPone: notably the scene that culminates the first act. Here Madam Rose has received a letter informing her that her youngest daughter (and the star of their vaudeville act) has eloped with one of the boys in the cast. Ms. LuPone's face was a study of emotion as she sat on a bench with the letter in hand. She was not only a heartbroken mother, but a distressed producer simultaneously. While other characters carried on with their dialogue, Ms. LuPone commanded the scene in her silence. When she did rise to speak to her other daughter, her line "I'm gonna make you a star" became a terrifying embodiment of the character's determination, culminating in a gut-wrenching rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" that brought he house down.
Speaking of her singing, Ms LuPone seems to defy the laws of nature and is vocally better than she was years ago. Her voice can be velvet the most romantic passages and then belt out with a gusto that rivals Ethel Merman-- for whom the role of Rose was written. In Ms LuPone's performance, "Small World" was delivered with beautiful luster, while "You'll Never Get Away From Me" was packed with comic invention. Of course, the truest test of any actress playing Mama Rose is the show's climactic number, "Rose's Turn" which is something of a musical psychological breakdown for the character. LuPone attacked the scene with gusto and performed it with a ferocious intensity that scorched the stage. At the number's conclusion the audience didn't rise from their seats, they shot up to deliver one of the most well-deserved standing ovations in recent memory. It was a good two minutes before the frenzy died down and the crowd returned to their seats.
As sterling as LuPone's performance was, GYPSY isn't a one-woman show. The rest of the cast was exemplary. Jack Willis was an avuncular love interest for LuPone and his abandonment scene was extremely effective despite the fact that he didn't wipe his mouth after Rose kissed him, the way many of his predecessors in the role have done. Broadway regular Jessica Boevers played the title role and she delivered one of her finest performances to date. Her transformation from Plain Jane to Glamorous Stripper was nuanced and a joy to behold. However, the sweetness of Ms Boevers' singing and the sensitivity of her acting couldn't rescue the song "Little Lamb". It is arguably the weakest song ever written for the Broadway stage and the only clunker in GYPSY's score. Leo Ash Evens made a fine Tulsa, performing "All I Need Is The Girl" with a manly grace that isn't always found in the role. Every production of GYPSY comes close to being stolen by the three strippers who perform the comic "You've Gotta Have a Gimmick" and this production was no exception, Jane Blass, Derin Altay and Debra Wattassek performed the number with definite panache and choreographer Bonnie Walker lovingly remained close to Jerome Robbins' classic staging for this and other numbers. Has there ever been a more effective way to show children maturing than the clever routine Robbins devised for Madam Roses' troupe?
As directed by Lonny Price, the production moved along a brisk clip and the minimalist sets by Tony Striges made effective use of theatrical trunks. The lighting designed by Kevin Adams proved to be both colorful and dramatic. If there is a single cavil about this remarkable production, it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as conducted by Paul Gemignani. For some time, Maestro Gemignani has shown an affinity for the lush sounds he can coax from an orchestra, but he seems to downplay the brassier moments in a score (Compare his studio recording of MAN OF LA MANCHA with the original cast album and you'll understand exactly what is meant here.) This was evident in his conducting of this classic Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim score. From the overture on, the ballads were caressed by the orchestra, but pizzazz was lacking in the more robust elements of the music. This was truly unfortunate in a show that dealt with the brass and rimshots of burlesque. Still, it was a treat to hear this glorious music played by a huge symphony orchestra.
After viewing this searing production of GYPSY, the question lingered in many minds about its afterlife. Clearly it was a production too notable to be cast aside after three performances. Ms LuPone's performance cries out to be preserved on CD or DVD, but the whole show is worthy of a full scale revival. Will it tour? Will it replace the thwarted COMPANY as a special presentation of the New York Philharmionic? Will it be transferred to Broadway? One thing is certain: this is a GYPSY that deserves a larger audience than those stalwart people who trekked to Ravinia for three nights in the summer of 2006..