NY City Center Encores - July 2007

Review by John Kenrick

After sitting through enough relentless mediocrity, you can begin to tell yourself that you were wrong -- that musicals never were all that wonderful, that performances and audiences were not so different in the days before Broadway turned into Bramson East. Then something like the Encores revival of Gypsy comes along and proves that your memories are true, and that nothing beats that lost animal, the New York theatre audience, celebrating that other lost animal, a real Broadway musical.

What's that? Am I a New York theatre snob? Hell no! Musical theatre is a popular art form, and I recognize that a tourist-centered Broadway must cater to increasingly lower standards of intelligence. But there are still a few thousand literate theatre goers left, and now and then something sneaks in to give us cause for rejoicing. Such is this Gypsy.

Oh sure, the material is glorious. Jule Styne's glorious music, and Stephen Sondheim's polished lyrics are untouched, and librettist Arthur Laurents has made some minor but wise excisions, while also directing with a firm, knowledgeable hand. It should be remembered that three of Broadway's great Rose's have been directed by Laurents -- Lansbury, Daly, and now Patti Lupone. Lupone makes this performance the culmination of her career so far, a monumental achievement. She has the vocal and dramatic firepower that Bernadette Peters so miserably lacked in this role, and throws herself into the role with a fervor that takes an audience's breath away.

But after some 47 years, Arthur Laurents has finally revealed the real secret in Gypsy. It is not a one-star show! For this musical to really take flight, it requires a Louise who is every bit as dazzling as it's Rose -- and we get that here as Laura Benanti joins Lupone. Ms. Benanti gives new levels of meaning to this character, biding her time in the first two thirds of the show as the long-suffering mouse ("Little Lamb" has never been delivered with such quiet, tragic power before), then roaring to wondrous life as the confident tigress. Her dressing room confrontation with Rose takes on an intensity I have never seen before, and it makes for riveting theatre. We literally see Gypsy taking control of her life from her mother, giving a new meaning to the nervous breakdown Rose has moments later.

As a result, the much vaunted "Rose's Turn" becomes a new revelation. After Lupone's searing and wildly vulnerable rendition comes yet another moment of new truth. As she dismisses her actions by saying she was just trying out a few things Gypsy might want to try sometime, we see the great musical stage star of today offering something to the next generation -- and its staggering.

Few could match the sensitivity and depth that Boyd Gaines brings to Herbie, so this revival is headlined by a trinity of stellar talents. Another trinity does its level best to steal the show, and they damn near do as the irresistible strippers who tell young Gypsy that "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Nancy Opel shines as the garish Mazeppa, Marilyn Caskey is a hoot as a rather short-circuited Electra, and Alison Fraser is a comic dazzlement as dressy Tessie Turra. In an equally fine bit of casting, hunky Tony Yazbeck is easily the best Tulsa ever, giving "All I Need Now Is The Girl" a macho believability most of his predecessors in this role have painfully lacked.

Encores offers all of this with only basic set pieces -- which is a major improvement over the visual vomit that graced the last Broadway revival. The budget goes into a full-size orchestra, directed by Patrick Vaccariello with a stylish hand. By the time they finish playing the hell out of the greatest overture Broadway can lay claim to, you know you are in for a memorable evening. James Youmans makes the most of those simple sets, and kudos go to Martin Pakledinaz for handsome costuming, and to Howell Binkley for outstanding lighting design.

Let's save time -- if you love musicals, the Encores production of Gypsy is a must see. They will be talking about this one fifty years from now, just as people still discuss Merman's performance damn near fifty years ago. Lupone and Benanti are the greatest duo to his Broadway since Rodgers and Hammerstein. Go, see, and rejoice!

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