Within seconds after musical director Marvin Laird picks up his baton, you will know why composer Jule Styne’s slam-bang overture to “Gypsy” is considered by many the greatest and the most invigorating overture ever written for an American musical (okay, so you prefer Leonard Bernstein’s more highfalutin “Candide”). Know this, however, that those who do go to this “Gypsy,” will hear, probably for the very last time, the sound of 24 musicians in the pit (thanks to the concessions made during the recent strike). That alone is worth the price of admission.
What is troubling, however, is the otherwise excellent director Sam Mendes’ lackluster staging of what is considered the most witty, pungent, and dramatically solid piece of work in all of musical theater. You could cite it as the “King Lear” of musicals. Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents collaboration tells the oft-told tale of the proverbial backstage mother vicariously living through the careers of her daughters. The theme remains an ongoing enigma in show business. This tragic misplacement of love and energies relates to all of us. In “Gypsy,” it becomes more than an entertainment: it becomes a parable.
Unfortunately Bernadette Peters, one of the treasures of musical theater, is, to be kind, as unsuccessful in capturing the essence of the plum role of Rose as she was two seasons ago in “Annie Get Your Gun.” That Ethel Merman originally created both roles does not automatically rule out the potential for other interpretations. Rose, in particular, has been empowered by such diverse personalities as Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, and Betty Buckley.
While Peters is a natural for embodying Rose’s more vulnerable side, she doesn’t have the vocal authority or dramatic heft to deliver Rose as a monster mom with a pervasive neurotic side. With admiral intentions apparent, Peters tries hard to aggressively confront Rose’s crusty edge, especially in the more tentatively played early scenes. But she seems unable to carry Rose beyond the songs to suggest the desperate and formidable dramatic arcs that propel her.
We are in Peter’s corner, as she affords her own special and endearing quality to “Some People,” and to the duets “Small World,” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.” It is with the more demanding “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn,” that Peter’s voice sounds strained and unable to capture the electrifying resonance those climactic songs need.
Coming up roses is not only Peter’s problem. Tammy Blanchard doesn’t quite stir up the full emotional eddy that can make the untalented Louise a heartbreaking character whose disdain for her mother is offset by her astonishing success as an indifferent stripper.
Without tampering with the text, I do commend Mendes for taking this “musical fable” a little closer to the grittier side of life. Mendes, the former artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, and whose revisionist “Cabaret” is a long-running hit on Broadway, seems hard-pressed to make the musical’s dramatic points as well as the parade of musical sequences resonate with a real commitment to this musical’s needs. At least, the pace doesn’t drag over the course of this three-hour show.
What I found most interesting was the coarser-grained nod to reality given to the three over-the-hill strippers, played with the expected horn-blowing, electrifying and balletic gusto by Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke, and Julie Halston. Another plus is the appealing personality and humanity that John Dossett, brings to the role of Herbie, Rose’s persistent and patient lover. As Tulsa, David Burtka makes his dance in the spotlight – “All I Need Is the Girl” – one of the more shining moments in the show.
I suppose that the sets and costumes by Anthony Ward cover the obligatory tacky and tangy terrain of the 1920s and 1930s. But it’s the insightful, painful and show-stopping dramatic elements that we miss most in this “Gypsy.” Before she makes another bad choice, will one of our young talented composers please write an original show for the terrific and unique Ms Peters: one that is designed to bring out her most precious and incomparable qualities.
Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street
For tickets ($100 – $60) call 212 – 239 – 6200