As the most famous line in Broadway musical history goes, “Sing out, Louise!” And so I shall. The revival of Gypsy at the Shubert Theatre is triumphant in every way. The best backstage musical ever created touches greatness in the central performance of Bernadette Peters as the ultimate stage mother, Momma Rose. Tabloid gossip and Internet queens had created a groundswell of vindictive rumor that she was miscast. The earth is also flat, I believe.
I must confess I didn’t see the sainted Ethel Merman in the original 1959 production. I understand that more than eight million people have, this being approximately the entire population of New York. Everyone claims to have been there. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually was. The myth of the old sandblaster, as Merman was affectionately known, has magnified over time, as all iconic theater performances do. It’s why the knowing sigh always comes with every new version of Mama Rose: “Ah, yes. But compared to Ethel …. ”
Thank goodness Ms. Peters is her own uncompromised invention. Her first gesture is actually to shove some cute tiny tot who’s covered in balloons into the background. Make way for Rose, the “pioneer woman without a frontier”! Except for, I’d suggest, the frontier of stardom or being noticed at any cost. Ms. Peters is best known for her more vulnerable, peachy roles ( Sunday in the Park with George ) and, until now, she seemed forever the adorable ingenue, even as a shaky Annie Oakley. In fact, her theater roots are very similar to the shabby, second-rate vaudevillian world of Gypsy . The transformation is no accident. She hurls herself into the killer role-stomping toward the footlights at one point as if about to charge at us with a verve that suggests she knows exactly where the neurotic ambition and vitality of Rose comes from. Ms. Peters, at the peak of her power in her mid-50’s, has channeled everything she knows into giving the best reading of Rose I’ve seen. She leads the way of admired predecessors like Tyne Daly precisely because, in some mysterious alchemy, her monstrous stage mother compels both our amazement and pity.
Is there a more thrilling overture, a better welcome to any musical, than Gypsy ‘s? I once asked Michael Bennett, the creator of A Chorus Line , what was his happiest moment at the theater. His answer was unequivocal: hearing the overture to Gypsy . The first sweeping, romantic, urgent notes of Jule Styne’s masterful score-the best he composed – promises the world, and delivers it, with lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim.
Light the lights,
You got nothing to hit but the heights!
You’ll be swell,
You’ll be great,
I can tell-
Just you wait!
That lucky star I talk about is due!
Honey, everything’s coming up roses for me and for you!
Now there’s an unbeatable case for real, live musicians in the orchestra pit. This is the way-we all surely think-this is the way it was, and should always be. And with it comes the inevitable nostalgia for a golden age that such shows always induce. The overture alone, perfectly orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler, receives an ovation.
It’s clear from the start, as we meet that frightening tribute to obnoxious, nightmare stage children in the miniature shape of squeaky Baby June (“Let Me Entertain You”), that the show’s British director, Sam Mendes, and his designer, Anthony Ward, have wisely decided not to mess with the original. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell has kept the essence of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography (as well he might). The show isn’t treated as a museum piece, though. It’s been modernized, with minimalist sets speeding the action along. The mise en scène suggests both storybook vaudeville and seedy reality, an effortless illusion of stages within stages.
Only a British director, perhaps, would stage a burlesque tradition of clapped-out old grotesques with quite as much relish as Mr. Mendes does here with the show-stopping strippers’ anthem, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” As is well known, one adorable slag blows a bugle charmingly out her ass with the classic bump and a bump and a bump-bump-bump; the more refined one grinds to an airy ballet; and the one who doesn’t move too good lights up with electric bulbs in strategic places. She’s electrifying, Electra tells us, and she’s not even trying.
We forget with all its drama how much fun Gypsy can be, and how charming, too-as easeful vaudeville always charms the socks off us (Rose and Herbie’s romantic swoon together in “Small World”; the showbiz song-and-dance pleasures of “Together, Wherever We Go”). The winsome sugar high of “Little Lamb,” when lonely little Louise sings to a little lamb, is the score’s deliberate mistake. The baby lamb on the lap of Louise is live. It shouldn’t be. It should be on a warm plate with some nice peas and potatoes.
Otherwise, the book by Arthur Laurents has taken one of America’s favorite metaphors-showbiz-and made it adult. (Mr. Sondheim later took it further with Follies .) On the one hand, Gypsy is Mr. Laurent’s valentine to showbiz; on the other, it’s a backhanded tribute to what it takes. He has a weakness for overblown showdowns (no fatal thing with big, brassy musicals). The ambitious, Oedipal story is based on the true one of Gypsy Rose Lee and her primal struggle with her domineering mother.
“Do you know what you are to them?” Momma Rose curses her now-famous daughter in the dressing room. “A circus freak. This year’s novelty act.”
“Nobody laughs at me,” comes the response from the queen of burlesque. “Because I laugh first! At me! Me -from Seattle; me-with no education; me with no talent-as you’ve kept reminding me my whole life …. ”
The gawky, apple-cheeked adolescent who finds herself-who’s noticed at last-by transforming into Gypsy Rose Lee is played by a lovely newcomer (new to me, anyway), Tammy Blanchard. I must also at least mention, among several winning performances, the smashing, cool dance solo of young David Burtka in “All I Need Is the Girl,” and John Dosset’s most affecting Herbie, lapdog suitor to Rose. The title role belongs to Gypsy, but the focus always shifts back to Momma Rose. The word “gypsy,” of course, refers to all performers. The aging, quintessential stage mother who wanted to be a star is made redundant and destroyed. Yet “Rose’s Turn,” her ultimate meltdown mini-opera that closes the show, is often seen as a hymn to survival. Who are we cheering for, exactly?
Well, there’s Ms. Peters. In Act I, she delivered “Some People”-“Some people sit on their butts / Got the dream-yeah, but not the guts”-with the bounce of swaggering resentment against mundane life, humdrum people. She tore into the big first-act closer, punching the air with her fists in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” which roused us all to the inescapable feeling that it better come up roses. But wait. Didn’t Momma Rose’s terrible ambition for her two stage daughters brutalize them? Haven’t three or four husbands walked out on her? Why are we cheering?
This time, boys, I’m taking the bows
And everything’s coming up Rose-
Everything’s coming up roses
Everything’s coming up roses
This time for me!
Her spirit is quite something. And lives unfulfilled, lives unlived, are always poignant. So we rise to this indomitable tummler , as we do to her bruising cry from the heart about lost chances and certain dreams that yearn in vain for recognition. “Rose’s Turn” tops everything even in this great American musical, arguably the greatest of them all.