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New York City Theater

City Center

“Gypsy” has probably been analyzed as many times as “Hamlet,” at least for who portrays the role of Mama Rose. Written by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) for Ethel Merman, the 1959 musical has attracted some of the biggest stars: Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters. The latest is Patti LuPone, backed by a huge orchestra, building on a concert version she did in Chicago.

The limited engagement production itself, under the auspices of Encores, is directed by Laurents himself and swings widely and wildly from anger to humor. On the anger side, Leigh Ann Larkin, with fire in her eyes, is the most bitter Dainty June (Havoc) ever. Boyd Gaines is a furious, frustrated Herbie, while Laura Benanti is a determined Louise.

As for humor, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” sung by three strippers, is downright hilarious. Alison Fraser’s bossy Tessi Tura, Nancy Opel’s blowsy Mazeppa and Marilyn Caskey’s brilliantly underplayed Electra blow the roof off.

But the show rises or falls on its Mama Rose. LuPone is not the prudish, repressed or demented stage mother others have depicted. Rather, she is fierce and frumpy, sensual and stinging, careless of her looks, a straightforward, no-nonsense Italian mom who’d kill for her daughters. In “Rose’s Turn,” when LuPone sings, “Gangway, world / Get offa my runway!” the audience ducks, then gives her an ovation. LuPone is breathless and inconsistent in both singing and acting, but you can’t deny there’s incandescent life here.

Script cuts have been made; the physical production, with its torn curtains and pockmarked inner proscenium is skimpy though effective; and where are the live animals? Yet this corrosive, darkly comic, ultimate showbiz story puts most musicals to shame. It is the pinnacle of the musical comedy form, a show with heart, soul, character and glory.

-- David A. Rosenberg
June 22, 2007

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