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Gypsy (05/01/2003 - 05/30/2004)


 

AP: "Revival of 'Gypsy' Opens on Broadway"

Broadway musicals don't get much better than "Gypsy."

These days, the only questions are how can any revival negotiate the show’s superb score and emotion-packed story, not to mention cast the gargantuan leading role of Rose, the theater's ultimate stage mother.

Very well, indeed, judging from the latest production, which opened Thursday at the Shubert Theatre. Directed by Sam Mendes and starring a surprising Bernadette Peters, it reconfirms the musical’s classic status and its appeal as good, old-fashioned entertainment.

From the first four notes of the overture -which lyrically spell out the theme of the show ('I had a dream") - to the evening's blazing finale of "Rose's Turn," "Gypsy" never lets up. And neither does Mendes' production.

"Gypsy" is very much about drive - and that rhythmic energy is present in Jule Styne's pulsating music, Stephen Sondheim's punchy, rat-tat-tat lyrics and Arthur Laurents' tough, muscular book that strikes the right balance between high drama and low comedy.

At the center of this creation is Rose, the obsessive mother of two little girls she is determined to push into the slowly dying world of vaudeville. Rose's dreams propel the evening, no matter if they end up nearly destroying herself and those around her.

To play this considerable creature, you need a performer capable of taking center stage and holding it against all odds. Peters is a theater star, but not one you would automatically associate with Rose. Several of her Broadway predecessors. such as Ethel Merman and Tyne Daly, barreled their way through the role on a wave of lung power and a blast of brass.

Peters, sporting a modest, marcel hairdo, bee-stung lips and clingy dresses, is equally determined but in a quiet, more subtle way. Her Rose is slyly sexual, especially when it will get her what she wants. And her relationship with Herbie, the goodhearted candy salesman turned agent, suggests genuine heat.

The actress pushes a bit in the show's more dramatic scenes, but she knows how to sing the score. Her voice doesn't have the iron-lunged quality of a Merman, but it can more than handle the musical roars of defiance - "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" - that end each of the show's two acts.

Just as important, Peters knows how to use the musical's silences. Watch her at two crucial points in the show: first, as she reads a letter from daughter June, announcing she has run out on their faltering vaudeville act; second, when Rose realizes she has a chance to push her gawky daughter, Louise, into a star spot, even though it is in a second-rate burlesque house in Kansas. There's a steely quality here that Peters gets with icy accuracy, a single-mindedness that really defines who Rose is.

But "Gypsy" is also about another formidable, if late-blooming, woman: Louise, the young girl who will grow up to become stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. And Tammy Blanchard pulls off the transformation - from insecure daughter to confidant burlesque star - with ease.

Mendes has been particularly savvy in his casting. John Dossett is a most generous, low-key Herbie, a terrific foil for Peters' insistent seductiveness. And there is fine support from Kate Reinders as the older June, Addison Timlin as Baby Louise and, particularly, a hilarious Heather Tepe as Baby June, the most terrifying child star ever to play vaudeville.

Jerry Mitchell has had the difficult task of supplying new dances for much of show. although some of Jerome Robbins' original choreography has been retained, particularly in "All I Need Is the Girl," danced with grace by David Burtka.

And, of course, there's "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," a raucous number for three over-the-hill strippers that epitomizes what a Broadway show-stopper is all about. After Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and Julie Halston are finished with the song, the place is pretty much up for grabs.

Yet, "Gypsy" is about more than Rose and her daughters. Mendes underlines another important theme of the musical - a nostalgia for a show-biz world that has long disappeared, a world of vaudeville, seedy burlesque houses, intrepid performers and dilapidated hotel rooms where the actors stayed.

His production embraces all things theatrical. You can see stagehands changing sets, moving props, rolling up backdrops and more. There is the deliberate attempt to make you aware that you are in a theater, experiencing something that could only happen on stage. Mendes, along with his star and the rest of the cast, make that experience quite a celebration.


AP
05/01/2003

New York Daily News: "No 'Gypsy' in her soul"

A few months ago, wowed by his productions of "Uncle Vanya" and "Twelfth Night" at the Brooklyn Academy, I declared in print that the Brit Sam Mendes was indeed a good choice to direct the American classic "Gypsy.”

I was wrong. Similarly, I once wrote that I had urged the head of a resident theater company to revive "Gypsy.”

At the time, I thought he could do it first with Dorothy Loudon, then with Bette Midler (still not a bad idea, despite her tepid TV version), while we waited for Bernadette Peters to age sufficiently. (A churlish fellow critic recently reminded his readers of this recommendation.) What can I say? Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Peters still is too much a kewpie doll to be plausible as the stage mother who, in her sick drive for success, makes her daughter a stripper. When Mendes was announced as the director of this revival, it was assumed he would rethink this show as he did "Cabaret.”

Other revivals have invariably hewed pretty close to the original staging by Jerome Robbins. Apparently when Mendes' version began previews a month ago, it played on a bare stage, which sounds interesting. At $100 a ticket, however, theatergoers were peeved at being asked to use their imaginations. So a few weeks ago, some set pieces were added. Whatever virtues the bare-stage concept offered, at least it would not have invited comparisons to the original. As of now, however, there are few staging ideas that differ from the 1959 version. Some of those ideas, like the strobe sequence in which the young Baby June and Louise are replaced by older versions, are executed sloppily. None of this would matter if Peters' performance were riveting. Her Mama Rose is charming, which is accurate if you read June Havoc's splendid memoir, "Early Havoc.”

The Rose that Laurents wrote, however, is darker, and Peters seldom conveys her ruthlessness. She is, of course, a gifted comic and finds humor I hadn't noted before. But much of her work, especially her singing, seems forced. Nor are her relationships with the other characters believable. Her "Rose's Turn" is indeed a star turn, but it doesn't seem to come from very deep. As Gypsy, Tammy Blanchard is poignant as the ugly duckling but is less skillful at showing us her transformation into a swan. The high point of the evening is the sequence with the three aging strippers, brilliantly performed by Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and Julie Halston (who also transforms a throwaway part as a secretary into something dazzling). Mendes has additionally devised a tableau for the strippers near the backstage wall that is inventive and evocative. Would there were more such moments! John Dossett is a very appealing, musically adept Herbie, and David Burtka is excellent as the aspiring dancer Tulsa. Much of this "Gypsy," however, seems mechanical. If you didn't know better, you might think the show, once an affectionate look at outmoded forms of show business, belonged in that category itself.


New York Daily News
05/02/2003

New York Post: "A Rose is a Rose"

Things ain't what they used to be, and frankly, when you've been hanging around the theater as long as I have, you'll remember that they never were.

I had heard dire things about the Sam Mendes revival of "Gypsy" with Bernadette Peters, which last night opened at the Shubert Theatre.

But how bad can any revival of this great classic be?

You have Jule Styne's ear-catching, heart-warming songs; Stephen Sondheim's mind-tingling lyrics; Arthur Laurent's super-intelligent (if badly shaped) book; and solid chunks and slices of Jerome Robbins' slick choreography.

Granted, you don't have Ethel Merman - the role of Mama Rose was wrapped 'round her very vocal cords and fit her every wrinkle like skin.

But Merman's dead, and without her, subsequent productions of "Gypsy" have edged downhill.

It was time for a change. Classic musicals can't just repeat themselves like indigestion. The only question about a new approach is how valid and entertaining it is.

Enter Peters. Petite and pretty, she's clearly no battle ax-diva in the Merman mode, and it was possibly risky and obviously controversial to cast her.

Yet Peters sings with enormous character and appeal, and acts with total conviction, though her powerhouse finale may be slightly low on wattage.

Her Rose may not have the indestructible guts of the others, but she has more heartbreak.

And while this Rose runs further afield from the real and monstrous stage mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and actress June Havoc, upon which the story is based, she melds into the show better.

In a Broadway musical, irony can prove stronger than iron.

And "Gypsy" is Broadway at its brassiest and most self-referential - showbiz as showbiz, heartbreak and triumph, ashes and diamonds, and all those fine things that make true-blue Broadway queens go weak in the knees.

Mendes has concentrated both on the concept of theater as a way of life - keeping the backstage working mechanism of the musical omnipresent, with vestigial sets deliberately plunked down on a bare stage - and the acting of the drama therein.

While he and choreographer Jerry Mitchell haven't quite captured the manic satiric edge of Robbins' relentless kiddie ballets (think Shirley Temple on speed), their strippers number, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," is fast, cute and funny.

Their staging of the finale - much helped by Anthony Ward's wild scenic concept, with Broadway bathed in light - is marvelous.

Most of the performances are exceptionally good. If the intelligent Tammy Blanchard seems too pallid for Louise and her butterfly transformation into stripper heaven, at least John Dossett - rumpled, ruffled and rangy - is perfect as Rose's lover/manager Herbie.

David Burtka is a whimsically rough Tulsa, dancing the original Robbins routine with easy charm, and the strippers with a gimmick - Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and Julie Halston - prove grotesquely, show-stoppingly wondrous.

Mendes' take on "Gypsy" isn't your usual gypsy camp, but it is, more important, a solid winner.


New York Post
05/02/2003

New York Times: "New Momma Takes Charge"

You can tear down the black crepe, boys. Take the hearse back to the garage, and start popping Champagne corks. Momma's pulled it off, after all -- big time.

Playing a role that few people thought would ever fit her and shadowed by vultures predicting disaster, Bernadette Peters delivered the surprise coup of many a Broadway season in the revival of ''Gypsy'' that opened last night at the Shubert Theater.

Ms. Peters, a beloved eternal daughter of the American musical, has taken on that genre's most daunting maternal role: Momma Rose, the ultimate stage mother in the ultimate backstage show and a part cast in bronze by Ethel Merman more than four decades ago. Working against type and expectation under the direction of Sam Mendes, Ms. Peters has created the most complex and compelling portrait of her long career, and she has done this in ways that deviate radically from the Merman blueprint.

There have been many illustrious successors to Merman as Rose: Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly on Broadway, Rosalind Russell on screen and Bette Midler on television.

Only Ms. Peters, however, can be said to have broken the Merman mold completely. And she does so without cracking or distorting the nigh perfect shape of what may be the greatest of all American musicals, a show assembled by the magical team of Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).

As a whole, the production by Mr. Mendes, the glittering young British stage and film director who first caught Broadway's attention with a luridly deconstructed ''Cabaret,'' may seem disappointingly status quo to those hoping for a full-fledged reinvention of this musical inspired by the life of the stripper deluxe, Gypsy Rose Lee. But the brassy glories of that adrenaline-pumping score, superbly rendered, and much of Jerome Robbins's original choreography are here to be savored. And no, they don't taste of preservatives.

Most important, though, Ms. Peters's brisk sweeping away of preconceptions about both a mythic character and the actress playing her casts new and haunting shadows on a familiar landscape. Traditionally presented as an armored tank on autopilot, which finally crashes only minutes before the final curtain, Rose emerges in this ''Gypsy'' with her monumental willpower intact. But something new and affecting is simmering within the character, a damning glimpse of self-awareness. You get the sense that if her frantic, ambition-driven movement stops for a second, she'll deflate into a small and bitter creature.

This Rose, like Ms. Peters in the part, has to work hard to make things happen for her. It doesn't come naturally, as it so famously seemed to for Merman. Watching this production, if you've seen any other version of the show before, you may find that the shivers, laughs and tears don't come in the places you expected. For this reason alone, Ms. Peters makes another visit to ''Gypsy'' essential, only 14 years after its last Broadway revival.

In shows like ''Mack and Mabel'' and ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' Ms. Peters's persona has always been that of a delectable waif, a vulnerable creature in ringlets with a heart and voice endearingly out of proportion to her tiny frame. When it was announced that she would be in ''Gypsy,'' the joke went around that she should be playing Baby June, the child actress frozen in professional prepubescence by Rose. Anyway, hadn't Ms. Peters seemed distressingly uncomfortable only a few years earlier in another part created by Merman, the title role in ''Annie Get Your Gun''?

Stories began circulating on the Web and in the tabloids that Mr. Laurents and Mr. Sondheim, the show's surviving creators, weren't pleased with the ways their baby was developing under Mr. Mendes. The sets and costumes (by Anthony Ward) were being significantly retooled and in some cases completely redesigned.

But the real problem, it was said, was Ms. Peters, who was dissolving under the pressure of a part that was simply too large for her. I heard from people who saw her in previews that they feared that her overtaxed voice would vanish before the night ended.

It did not sound auspicious when Maureen Moore, Ms. Peters's standby, replaced the star, who was said to have a cold, for several performances only a week before the opening, causing an unseemly dip in box-office receipts. And when the season's first group of New York theater nominations were announced, for the Outer Critics Circle Awards, Ms. Peters's name was conspicuously missing from a less than glittering list.

Oh, the drama, the intrigue, the agony of it all! How very, very showbiz. And how appropriate that the imperiled star should wind up breaking through the clouds at the last minute in a revelatory blaze. The night I saw this production, you could sense an unusually high level of anticipatory tension in the audience, equal parts sympathetic worry and ghoulishness.

And then, there she was, walking down the aisle of the theater in the phantom footprints left by Merman, Lansbury et al., clutching a tiny poodle and yelling the immortal words, ''Sing out, Louise!'' to the little girl performing onstage. I saw Ms. Peters's face as she passed me. Her brow was furrowed, her focus intense, and for the first time I'd ever seen her perform, she didn't look remotely like an ingénue. (Ms. Peters is 55.) And somehow I felt that everything was going to be all right.

It was more than that. The very thing that Rialto gossip had seemed to hold against Ms. Peters -- that she was a natural Baby June -- has been turned stunningly to her advantage. As Rose shepherds her daughters, June and Louise, from childhood into adolescence through the vaudeville circuit, you keep noting the resemblance between Ms. Peters and the actresses who play the young June (Heather Tepe) and her older self (Kate Reinders). Small wonder that Rose pays so little attention to the brown-haired, tomboyish Louise (Addison Timlin and, as the older version, Tammy Blanchard).

Mr. Mendes plays cannily on the physical similarities between June and Rose. He often keeps Ms. Peters in full, spotlighted view as June performs, with Rose mouthing the silly speeches and song lyrics along with her daughter. It's a bit like watching Gloria Swanson, as the older Norma Desmond, looking at movies of her younger self. And the sense of vicarious thrills that Rose derives from her performing daughters is intensified in eerie ways.

You realize that what Rose is seeing is an imperfect version of what she might have been. And a line Rose utters toward the show's end, speaking of why she didn't become a star herself, assumes disquieting echoes: ''I was born too soon and I started too late.'' The verdict in the words is confirmed by Ms. Peters's worn, doll-like prettiness. Dressed in flapper-cum-matron costumes that discreetly accentuate her curves, she's an outmoded 1920's beauty, a baby vamp past her vogue.

Even more than Ms. Daly's earthily sensual Rose, Ms. Peters's version makes strategic use of come-hither femininity. This Rose isn't above stretching her dress tightly over her bosom when dealing with men. Her arms determinedly akimbo, she struts with a hint of a sashay. For once, it seems right when one of the burlesque queens in the second act says of Rose, ''You know from the way that dame walks, she would have made a damn good stripper. In her day.''

This quality brings a new tenderness to Rose's relationship with Herbie (John Dossett, in an appealing, low-key performance), the gentle, passive man whom she recruits to manage her daughters' act. You actually think, as you wouldn't have dared with Merman, that they must have a very pleasurable sex life. And their final parting is more wrenching than usual.

Many of the fabled sequences of Jerome Robbins's staging have been closely followed, including the blissful strobe-lighted dance in which little June and Rose morph into their older selves. What Mr. Mendes, Mr. Ward and the choreographer Jerry Mitchell bring to the familiar mise-en-scène is a heightened sense of the seediness of the backstage world. There's less fairy-tale prettiness to the vaudeville sets. And Mr. Mendes doesn't shrink from showing just how mediocre Rose's touring acts are.

The strippers who initiate Louise into their terpsichorean art look even more time-scarred than usual. And as embodied by Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and a wonderfully lethargic Julie Halston, they have rarely been so delightful. The rest of the supporting cast is more than adequate, especially the four actresses portraying Rose's daughters.

The coltish Ms. Blanchard finds new gradations in Louise's metamorphosis into Gypsy. You sense flickers of personal ambition in the character's still waters, and in her final scenes she retains charming vestiges of the gawky girl she was. She also brings genuine resentful heat to Louise's climactic confrontation with Rose. This is clearly a woman who has learned more from her mother than Rose might have liked.

Ms. Peters more than justifies Louise's final eruption. Rose's first number, ''Some People,'' a hymn of ambition sung to her father (William Parry), garnishes the usual air of determination with an instinctive little-girl flirtiness. The song lays the groundwork for the creeping realization that Rose resents having to be a mother; the role of pampered daughter should have been hers by rights for a lifetime.

Time and circumstance have not allowed this. So, as Ms. Peters portrays her, Rose has to keep acting a part to make life bearable. Of course, she's the one who should be on that stage, not twinkly June or plodding Louise. Even coaxing Louise into performing her first striptease, you have no doubt, as Ms. Peters arches her back before a mirror, that it's Rose that Rose is imagining in the spotlight.

The great tragedy is that on some level Ms. Peters's Rose knows what's wrong with this picture. In its rare moments of repose, her face is bleached and haunted with disappointment. She looks old. That great nervous breakdown of a song, ''Rose's Turn,'' has a newly reflective, almost masochistic quality that you have been thoroughly prepared for.

This woman, after all, has already shown her true colors earlier in what may be the angriest, most disturbing version ever of ''Everything's Coming Up Roses.'' Ms. Peters's portrait is so intimate and persuasive that you aren't allowed to step back and think, ''What a monster she is.'' That's because, thanks to this actress's willingness to turn herself and her character inside out, you've been inside Rose's mind. What a sad and fascinating place it is.


New York Times
05/02/2003

USA Today: "Flawless 'Gypsy' sparkles under Mendes' hand"

Leave it to Sam Mendes to bring out a jewel's sharp edges.

The celebrated British stage director, whose credits include the films American Beauty and Road to Perdition, may not have seemed an obvious choice to helm a 44-year-old musical that originally starred Ethel Merman.

But Mendes' new production of Gypsy, which opened Thursday at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, is the most intuitive and gloriously entertaining Broadway revival of a classic musical since Susan Stroman's The Music Man.

Like Stroman, Mendes understands the importance of sentiment and sheer fun in this great American art form. The self-conscious reserve that marred fellow Brit Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma! last season is nowhere to be found in this Gypsy, which casts cute children, wacky adults and live animals in a vibrant whirl of action, emotion and showbiz razzmatazz.

Yet as Mendes proved in directing Broadway's current Cabaret, he also can mine the bleak ironies that often lie hidden beneath the greasepaint. So can his new leading lady, Bernadette Peters, whose performance as Rose, the pathologically driven stage mom immortalized by Merman, is that of a star reborn.

The guardian, taskmaster and Svengali to real-life burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoirs inspired this musical, may seem a natural role for Peters, who was pushed into show business by her own mom and as an adolescent joined the ensemble of a national company of Gypsy.

But while Peters likely drew on such personal experience, her vigorous portrayal also represents a professional milestone. At 55, musical theater's perennial pixie is finally playing a woman close to her own age, and is doing so with a sensitivity and authority worthy of any musical actress of her generation.

Peters hasn't lost her playful, sexy side; I could hardly imagine Merman flashing her legs as this Rose does upon meeting her soon-to-be partner, Herbie, played with disarming benevolence by John Dossett. On the other hand, I doubt that even the iron-lunged Merman could have conjured the depths of desperation reached in Peters' shattering Everything's Coming Up Roses, or lent as much poignancy to some of the other ravishing Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim tunes featured here.

Co-star Tammy Blanchard makes her own strong impression in an equally challenging role, that of Rose's daughter and reluctant protégée Louise, who must blossom from an awkward teenager into the glamorous but still conflicted Gypsy Rose Lee. Anthony Ward's costumes may assist Blanchard's physical transformation, but her subtle acquisition of grace and sexual confidence owes more to genuine presence than sartorial savvy.

Heather Tepe and Kate Reinders amuse playing Louise's more gifted sister, June — who became actress June Havoc — as a surreally hyperactive girl and a frustrated teen. Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and Julie Halston provide comic highlights as enterprising strippers who educate Louise. The lesson takes place in one of several stark backstage settings that mirror the emptiness and futility of the world Rose creates for herself and her daughters.

It's a tribute to Mendes, Peters and everyone else involved that this Gypsy finds those dark corners even as it glitters.


USA Today
05/01/2003

Variety: "Gypsy"

Somewhere in the massive trunk of theatrical wit and wisdom that is "Gypsy," there's a line for every showbiz occasion. For the highly anticipated new Broadway revival directed by Sam Mendes, it would be a paraphrase of a song title from the first act: All it needs is a Rose. Mendes' vivid and stylish production has a lot going for it, in fact almost everything except the one element this musical can't comfortably do without: a galvanizing performance in the central role. The controversial casting of the downy-soft Bernadette Peters as the flinty Mama Rose proves to be, as many had feared, a miscalculation that all this talented performer's hard work simply cannot overcome.

The choice of Peters was an acknowledged risk. Book writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Mendes knew Peters' image and performing style didn't necessarily fit the standard for Mama Rose, the stage mother from hell who drives her daughters away in pursuit of a dream of stardom that she cannot bring herself to acknowledge as her own. The admirable idea was to seek out a new interpretation for this celebrated character, one of the great roles in the American musical canon: To accentuate her womanly qualities as opposed to her monstrous ones, to give us a more rounded, seductive, human-scaled Mama Rose.

Peters' naturally warm presence and period-perfect face certainly bring some intriguing new dimensions to the character. This Rose might indeed have made it big in showbiz if given the chance, and her baby-doll features hauntingly suggest the hopeful little girl inside the driven, disappointed woman. With Peters in the role, we can imagine that Baby June's cutie-pie persona has been synthesized to replicate the adorable child her mother probably once was. And Peters, as expected, plays up Rose's purring femininity, making Herbie's infatuation with her more understandable than it often is: Her kittenish performance of "Small World" is seductive indeed.

But it's really when Mama Rose is most monstrous that she's most compelling -- and, paradoxically, most human. Those chilling, character-defining scenes, in which Rose's determination to hound her daughters into stardom overrides a mother's loving instincts, tend to slip by in Peters' performance almost imperceptibly. The big moments register small. Peters bellows Rose's demands and objections in a nasal snarl as circumstances require, but there's somehow no conviction in her steeliness. The desperation and need that drive her are dutifully sketched in, suggested, but never made palpable. The performance has little emotional force.

Theater historians might point out that Ethel Merman, who created the role, wasn't exactly known for her expressive acting. (Didn't Sondheim himself famously disparage her as a "singing dog"?) Duse she wasn't. But subsequent interpreters of the role, notably Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly on Broadway, have set the bar higher. And Merman, one assumes, had a powerful charisma that helped to compensate for any acting deficiencies. Peters is a more delicate presence, and while the actress is in fine vocal form, in her efforts to sell her big songs she often lapses into repetitive, generic Broadway gestures -- splayed hands stabbing at the sky -- that are aimed too squarely at wowing the audience.

Most audiences, of course, will be content to be wowed, and will find Peters' perfectly competent and freshly funny perf entirely satisfactory. In any case, the allure of "Gypsy" certainly does not all rest with Rose. Mendes has assembled a terrific supporting cast, led by Tammy Blanchard, best known for her Emmy-winning turn as the young Judy Garland in a 2001 ABC telepic, as a touching Louise. She is convincingly awkward and plain in the early scenes, blazingly beautiful when she shimmies through the long sequence in which this tentative teen struts her way to stardom on a series of burlesque stages.

In this thrillingly staged number, the miniature prosceniums that are a hallmark of Anthony Ward's inventive sets expand to fill the stage for the first time. Previously, Mendes had always shown us Mama Rose, visible in the wings, urging the girls on in their gradually decaying vaudeville routines. She was a constant presence, helping Baby June into a finale costume or chasing one of the boys' stray hats. Then, suddenly, once Gypsy achieves stardom, Rose is pushed offstage, erased from the picture.

In general, Mendes' production doesn't take notable liberties with the material, but provides an artful frame for it. The overriding metaphor is theatrical: A backstage set, lit with infinite nuance by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, surrounds every scene until Gypsy's apotheosis, underscoring the idea that for Rose and her troupers, the theater was the world and the world was the theater.

Those troupers include, first and foremost, star attraction Baby June. She is played, hilariously, like a yapping trained poodle in the early scenes by Heather Tepe, and later with a deliciously disgruntled edge by Kate Reinders, who whips out a cigarette from under her frilly frock in a moment of exasperation. David Burtka is an endearing, bright-eyed Tulsa; if his dancing in "All I Need Is the Girl" is not precisely virtuosic, Burtka makes up for it with his exuberance. John Dossett is an appealingly sincere Herbie with a palpably soft heart.

As the trio of strippers who instruct Louise in the fine art of the bump and grind, Kate Buddeke (a battle-ax Mazeppa), Heather Lee (a sweet-tempered Tessie Tura) and Julie Halston (a hilariously zonked Electra) just about stop the second act cold with "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." But then this is the rare Broadway score that is really unstoppable: the songs are like a string of perfect pearls, polished to a bright glow by music director Marvin Laird.

And yet accomplished and lively as the production is, it cannot do full justice to the material without a powerful performance in the central role. This "Gypsy" is an amiable and entertaining backstage comedy, but it doesn't evolve into an archetypal story about the universal human need to be loved, as the finest productions can. Mama Rose is a great character because she embodies, on a grand scale, the human hunger for the warmth of the spotlight -- any spotlight. That this hunger is instilled by the kind of emotional neglect Mama Rose also ladles out is the disorienting irony that gives the show its perpetual fascination.

Peters herself began performing as a child. She's spent a life on the emotional roller-coaster that is showbiz, and no doubt knows its pleasures and pains intimately. Her delivery of Rose's exhausted moment of revelation -- her bewildered admission that she "just wanted to be noticed" -- is deeply affecting, maybe her finest moment in the show. But there is a lot more to Rose than this poignant moment of recognition. In a fascinating profile recently in the New York Times, Peters talked about her early days on the road -- in a production of "Gypsy," yet -- and her very own Mama Rose. She was at pains to point out that her mother was cut from softer cloth. But perhaps Peters' inability to dig into the darker aspects of her character stems from a natural reticence about her own experience. The performance may not be the triumph we'd hoped for, but it's easy to forgive an actress's reluctance to play her mother as a monster.


Variety
05/01/2003

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