May 1, 2003

Bernadette's Turn

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It was two hours and 30 minutes into the performance, she had hardly been off the stage all evening after having completed the matinee barely six hours ago, and the strain of the eight performances a week was showing in the growing hoarseness of her voice, yet Bernadette Peters wouldn’t succumb to her infirmity as she began Gypsy’s 11 o’clock number: “Rose’s Turn.”

Could she manage? Would she be able to belt out this tour de force made famous by Ethel Merman, the belter of all belters? Peters gingerly navigated through “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the Broadway veteran pulled the numbers off. Did she have anything left for her final stand on stage? Though her voice was lacking, Peters lived up to her legendary status with an emotional and gritty performance exemplifying Sam Mendes’s pared down revival of the classic Arthur Laurents-Jules Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical.

For years, musical purists have been complaining about the current wasteland on Broadway. With shows such as Urinetown receiving critical acclaim, the Andrew Lloyd Weber repertoire collecting dust and revivals that can’t live up to the originals, Mendes’s Gypsy will certainly breathe some life into New York’s musical scene.

The highly anticipated production stars a veteran cast led by Peters, with the Tony-winning director Mendes to interpret the autobiographical story about the childhood of the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The collaboration of so many of Broadway’s best has had critics buzzing for some time.

However, the exploration of Gypsy, which first opened with Ethel Merman as Rose, resurrected with Angela Landsbury and Tyne Daly in the same role, and further depicted by Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler’s versions captured on film leaves Peters with seemingly little unexplored territory for the role. Or so one thought.

Peters, perhaps the first non-battle-ax to assume the role of Rose, the most famous stage mom of the theater, brings a subtlety to Rose where there was none in earlier renditions of the musical. Although she doesn’t evoke images of Merman, Peters has been exploring characters written for the former with her recent success as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun and now Rose.

In Mendes’s vision, though, Gypsy proves to be a bigger star vehicle for Peters than it was for Merman. Instead of focusing on the strained relationship of Rose and her two daughters, Baby June and Louise, Rose’s struggle with her own ambition and that for her daughters is brought to the forefront. The rise and success of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper takes the back seat to Rose’s ambition. And no one on Broadway is as qualified to shoulder this responsibility as Peters.

She brings a softer and sexier dimension to role without relinquishing the manipulative and strong-willed traits so central to the role. In Peters, Rose becomes less of a caricature and more of a tragic figure, who pushes away the men in her life only to be abandoned by the children for whom she sacrificed them.

Unlike Mendes’s last venture onto Broadway when he reconceptualized Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Gypsy sticks closer to its traditional roots. Not too many elements separate this production from its former incarnations, although it is a little sparser, a little darker and most likely more realistic. It is understandable why Rose has so much trouble booking the “Baby June and Her Newsboys” act. The children are intentionally amateurish and unpolished. Moreover, Mendes also conveys the feeling that Vaudeville is on its last legs. He strips the glamour from the theater both literally in the bare-bones sets and figuratively in the crassness of the business. The only one blind to this corrupted, amoral, and often nasty world is Rose. The classic Jerome Robbins choreography is left almost completely intact, especially the crowd-pleaser, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” the ode to stripping success.

Tammy Blanchard, who won an Emmy for as Judy Garland in Me and My Shadows: Life With Judy Garland, went through a remarkable evolution as Louise. At first she was naive, awkward, and content to stand in her sister June’s shadow. But like the woman she portrays, Blanchard truly shines once she becomes Gypsy, the most famous, highest paid stripper in the world.

In the role of Herbie, Rose’s agent and significant other (in no particular order), John Dossett provided a counterpoint for Rose. As brash and insufferable as Rose was, Dossett’s Herbie was genial and sympathetic (which sometimes borders on the pathetic).

Talent on Broadway runs deep and this production utilizes it. There are no weaknesses to mention through the rest of the cast. Kate Reinders (June) is able to find a darkness to June despite her pink ribbons and curly ponytails. The trio of strippers, Heather Lee (Tessie Tura), Kate Buddeke (Mazeppa) and Julie Halston (Electra) do justice to their showstopper number.

Gypsy opens on Broadway today and is playing at the Shubert Theater. It is sure to satisfy both tourists and musical connoisseurs with this intelligent, insightful and most importantly, entertaining rendition.

Archived article by Amanda Angel