By Katherine Sable
For those who aren’t engrossed in the now dominating teenybopper shows in the lights of Broadway, rest assured that the latest Gypsy revival will not fall short. A canon of American Theater and on its fourth revival- this time, folks, I confidently declare that it’s worth every minute.
Last summer I was fortunate enough to attend the closing night performance of Gypsy presented off-Broadway in the City Center Encores! Summer Stars production. It was a big night for Gypsy and Patti LuPone, Broadway bigwig and lead role in this show, exclaimed that no one would “close the curtain on Gypsy.” A big statement, as talk had been going around that the summer’s highly applauded production could head straight to Broadway. Well, the St. James Theater opened its doors to Gypsy fans abound this past Wednesday night, March 26th and you simply cannot miss this one.
The key to the success of this latest revival is not only in the direction of Tony award winner and writer of the original book, Arthur Laurents, but more in the casting of Patti LuPone as Mama Rose, a character often believed to be the most difficult and complicated of the Broadway canon. Funny thing is, Ms. LuPone dreamed of playing Rose and had been told years ago by Laurents that it would never happen (due to a decade-long contract argument between the fellow theater big names). Needless to say, and why I write now, LuPone and Laurents eventually made up (Laurents’ partner of 52 years said on his dying bed that Patti should play Momma Rose), and lucky for us, this is how a Rose worth remembering is born.
Ethel Merman first veiled the character Mama Rose on stage in 1959. She showcased a Rose with powerful vocals and bam theatrics within the musicality, but she simply couldn’t act! During a time when the lights of Broadway were at their biggest, flashy, loud, show-stopping performances were all that seemed to matter. The complicated characteristics were completely denied and hidden by mere theatrics. Rose was only understood as an evil stage mother, with not a redeeming characteristic in sight. Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly also took on the role during the first two revivals. Both characters display certain specific singular qualities, as Lansbury’s take shows some of the softer qualities, and more subtle realness- but the dark depths, the scary Rose, isn’t to be found; there aren’t enough psychological contradictions. Tyne Daly’s Rose portrays a pretty charming and dark lead woman role, but her vocals didn’t showcase enough of the drama within the amazing Sondheim lyrics. Mama Rose has a musical breakdown at the closing number, and “pretty charming and dark” simply do not add up to psychological, mental breakdown.
Clearly, any number of stage actresses could take on one or two of the many characteristics of the difficult Mama Rose, but no one could actually embody all of the so-called contradictions of this female Broadway character. It was less than five years ago that a Gypsy revival surfaced, starring Bernadette Peters, and I would agree with many that they simply missed the boat that go around. In 2003, Peters fleshed out a Mama Rose in the often-claimed worst rendition of Gypsy. Possibly an attempt to liven up old-school Broadway and situate it more in the realm of the ticket selling teenybopper productions (popularity contest?), the casting directors may have tried to play the sex card to sell- and a contemporary Rose, a sexy, or dare I say “feminine” version of Rose was constructed. Boy, that’s laughable, too. Not only did the casting director not set out to find the real Rose, rather they set aside any desire to portray a woman who in all respects can be equally dark, forceful, vulnerable, sexy, and feminine.
Patti LuPone creates a human Rose, a mother and a lover, pushy but still very likeable. LuPone’s Rose is not dominated by her unfathomable intensity, or her driven force, but she creates a character that is situated in a more inclusive in-between type of woman. It was as if it, until now, was unbelievable to have a woman who could be vulnerable, be surprisingly seductive, and at the same time be brash and loud. Merman simply embodied the obvious, safe characteristics of the stage mom. Rose is nurturing and selfish, intense and intimate, irresistible and hard-edged, throwing the kink in by being all of that and sexual- redefining the feminine character. It is her hunger to fill her own voids by forcing her children into the lights of vaudeville that becomes more than just a typically sad quintessential stage mom.
Patti LuPone was born for this role, she is not only a powerhouse Broadway star, an icon, but she alone has revealed the depth of Mama Rose for the first time since Laurents sketched out the devious character. And it’s a damn shame it took almost 5 decades for it to finally flesh out! You simply must see Gypsy at the St. James Theater. This is one not to be missed, even if you aren’t a Broadway fan.