21 May 2008

Gypsy review

I just got back from seeing Gypsy on Broadway, fourth row center. :-D (If you're wondering how I got that seat, I bought it months in advance.)

The book was written by Arthur Laurents (who is also directing the current production at 90+ years of age), the music by Jules Styne, and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The story is pretty simple. It's about a stage mother, Rose Lee, who will do anything to make her two daughters stars on the vaudeville circuit. She seduces a theater agent, Herbie, into helping her. Eventually, her meddling and inflated ego drive away her younger daughter June, the star of her act. Rose resolves to take the hit in stride and re-works the act to center around her other daughter, Louise. The act is so bad that they end up in a house of burlesque (basically stripping). Rose finally decides to call it quits on her stage dreams and marry Herbie as she promised, but at the last minute, there is an opportunity for Louise to take the star strip spot. Herbie realizes that he can never marry Rose and leaves. Louise becomes a star stripper and with her newfound confidence, becomes an independent woman. Rose is left feeling empty and wondering what "she did it for." Gypsy is often considered one of the best written musicals of all time; someone even calling it the King Lear of musical theater.

Now, my comments on the actual performance. Patti Lupone played Rose, Boyd Gaines played Herbie, and Laura Benanti played Louise. All three have been nominated for Tony Awards. I came to the musical expecting Patti LuPone to belt her way through (LuPone had a tendency of doing that in her earlier years), but she really did a great job acting, so much that I noticed her acting just as much as her singing. I think LuPone has been working very hard in the last ten years to become a better actress and it shows. She was very controlled and focused acting-wise all the way through, only really belting in the Act 2 finale, "Rose's Turn." I felt like LuPone's singing voice was a little off, but it could have been my imagination. LuPone played Rose as a very human creature. Some people (I'm thinking Bette Midler) have played Rose as this crazy superwoman and that choice just doesn't work because I can't imagine Herbie falling for that kind of Rose. I really liked Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti as well. Gaine played Herbie as a really sweet guy who's seduced by Rose. He plays along until he explodes right before Louise becomes a stripper. It's hard to imagine a more likable and believable Herbie. You really feel like Herbie is madly in love with Rose. Gaines and LuPone have great chemistry in songs like "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" and "Together Wherever We Go." Benanti does the transition between Louise the eager-to-please girl and Louise the confident stripper very well. I thought the actor who played Tulsa was good, but not outstanding. There was just some spark that was missing. The orchestra was fantastic, especially the brass, and they had a full 25-member complement. Yay for old-fashioned overtures! Interestingly enough, Arthur Laurents chose to put the orchestra on the stage behind the set. I liked that choice because it made the orchestra part of the story more and the actors were closer to the audience.

Even if you've seen other productions (I watched both movies before attending this show), there are some new, thoughtful touches. During the "You'll Never Get Away from Me" number, Rose starts dancing with Herbie and somehow Rose drags Herbie onto the ground and they end up rolling around on the floor. It was hilarious. They end the number with a tender kiss, while sitting on the floor -- aww, how sweet. In the "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" number, Electra is played as a lethargic woman who wearily turns the switch on her costume. The ironic joke is that the woman with the flashiest costume has the opposite personality. That is a directing choice I was not expecting and very refreshing.

Laurents's direction emphasizes how Rose and Louise's roles are gradually switched over the course of time. Louise becomes more and more confident with each strip and she starts talking down to her mother. Rose breaks down during "Rose's Turn" and in the conversation with Louise aftewards, she starts crying. Pretty shocking. Louise (Benanti is conveniently quite a bit taller than LuPone) comforts her mother like she's a child. Rose regains her composure and tells her dream about having her name in lights -- "Madame Rose and her daughter Gypsy." Louise walks off chuckling, obviously not taking her mother seriously. In the movies I've seen, you are given the impression that Rose and Louise reconcile -- walking off the stage arm in arm, but in this performance, I didn't get that sense at all. Instead as Louise walks off alone and Rose is seen with her back to the audience, grasping at her name in lights -- a very dark ending.

One of the things I really like about Gypsy is that it has something for everyone. Kids will enjoy the silly vaudeville acts and Tulsa's dance number. Adults will appreciate the complexity of Rose's character and the fine supporting acting from Louise and Herbie. The score is wonderful, upbeat, and jazzy (something I didn't appreciate until now). There is a lot of humor in the musical (especially in the "You've Gotta Have a Gimmick" number starring three strippers), but also a lot of darkness especially in "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn".

Anyways, all the rave reviews from theater critics are true. The play is beautifully acted, beautifully sung, extremely entertaining, and extremely thoughtful.

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