If, as they say, 50 is the new 30, it’s no wonder that Gypsy, at age 48, seems the freshest and healthiest young musical in town, a work just hitting its prime. Which is surely a paradox, given that the current revival, a slimmed-down version put up as a special summer event by City Center’s Encores! series, is Gypsy‘s fifth New York mounting, and that most of the city’s theatergoers can be assumed to know large chunks of it by heart. The sense of freshness that librettist Arthur Laurents’s speedy, spare new staging gives off—its streamlined approach makes the last full-scale Broadway production, by Sam Mendes, look fussy and cluttered in comparison—confirms Gypsy‘s stature: It’s one of those permanently youthful classics that’s rarely going to be absent, but will only go stale if directors fuss with it too much. Aficionados of the form will always crowd in to judge how the latest star handles the show’s big passages, as with a ballerina’s 32 fouettes or a bel canto soprano’s cabaletta from Sonnambula.
The latest star to tackle Gypsy‘s lead role of Madam Rose is Patti LuPone, who gets mighty cheers on her first entrance and her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and a thoroughly committed standing ovation, not the pre-programmed curtain-call kind, after “Rose’s Turn.” Though personally a little more reserved about LuPone’s performance, I too am impressed. LuPone brings a ferocity to the role that I thought had largely disappeared after Merman—Angela Lansbury’s steel swathed in silk was a different matter—and someone has apparently been niggling at her about her sung final consonants, which are now almost over-articulated. (Surely in Merman’s time everything was “comin’ ” rather than “coming” up roses.) LuPone’s presence and the energy she emits onstage are unremitting; she can project all the role’s feelings, from hauteur and black resentment to dimply flirtatiousness. Supple physically in ways that were not part of Merman’s equipment in later life, she can bring off actions like dancing seductively with her Herbie (a marvelous portrayal by Boyd Gaines) till an attempted back-bend brings them both crashing to the floor in laughter. She radiates, as to my taste neither Tyne Daly nor Bernadette Peters radiated in the role, the dynamism that can drive the show from beginning to end.
All of which is fine, since Gypsy (ironic, misleading title!) is entirely about Madam Rose; only in the second half of Act Two does the addendum “and her daughter, Gypsy” become significant. This part of the story has been lurking at the shadowy edge of the stage all along, a narrative bud not yet ready to bloom, in the person of Louise (wistfully appealing Laura Benanti), the poetry-writing, pet-collecting waif who lives in boys’ clothes and wonders how old she is. Like Herbie with his infinite patience (and Gaines etches perfectly the ulcer sufferer’s pained half-smile), Louise with her mute obedience and dainty needlework is a classic enabler. Benanti, her big eyes brimming with perplexed devotion, makes the submissiveness grow naturally into the taut defensiveness of the newly liberated slavey.
My question about LuPone’s performance comes from what we’re shown of the force to which Louise and Herbie submit. Other Madam Roses have found ways of reaching out to the weary underlings whose obedience allows them to keep driving: Merman did it with her infectious exhilaration, Lansbury with maternal supportiveness, Daly with camaraderie. Peters, lacking the grandeur the role demands, spread tenderness around like a soothing salve. LuPone, the most alone and monomaniac Rose ever, shows only a perfunctory interest in such ploys. Wearing a lapdog-mop hairdo that gets progressively more unruly, toting a purse the size and shape of a small stewpot, she lives onstage as if it’s always her turn. She pushes both of the huge act-ending numbers to the point of mania; I spent the intermission wondering why Herbie and Louise hadn’t called the men in white coats to take her away. “Rose’s Turn” becomes not a frustrated, angry woman’s soul-searching threnody but the cry of a still-ravenous ego.
This is clearly an interpretation rather than a personality matter; LuPone hasn’t behaved this way in other roles. With Laurents directing, one can’t say LuPone’s approach lacks authorial approval. And given the audience’s response, it’s obviously a view of the role that speaks to our time: the stage mother as self-flagellating, solipsistic monster, wrenching her guts inside out for a public nurtured on reality TV. The phenomenon dramatizes the disjunction between Gypsy‘s time—he “golden age” of Broadway musicals, when vaudeville and burlesque were still fresh in the American memory—and our own, a mere half-century later, when the last shreds of their communitarian spirit have vanished and sheer solo frenzy has become the inevitable way for an individual, particularly an individual woman, to assert herself creatively. The disjunction’s made all the sharper because Laurents’s production really catches, as recent revivals haven’t, the seedy, flavorsome aura of those two once-popular art forms, with smart design choices in both set (James Youmans) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), and with knowing performances by both his Baby June (Sami Gayle) and his grown-up Dainty June (Leigh Ann Larkin), who embody vaudeville pandering at its hokiest with hilariously painful exactitude.
The even less happy alternative to displays like LuPone’s ego-frenzy is for the artist to impose a personal straitjacket on the material in lieu of interpreting it, as Robert Wilson has done in his staging of La Fontaine’s Fables for the ComÃ©die- FranÃ§aise, seen earlier this month at the Lincoln Center Festival. Though the show offered, as expected, many attractive Wilson visual moments, and the actors displayed both high ability and a game spirit, the end result (a giant success in Paris for the past several years) was ultimately disheartening, sterilizing both life and moral sense out of La Fontaine’s works. All French children (and nearly everyone else who studies French) know the most familiar of these fables, so you couldn’t precisely call Wilson’s work destructive, but he failed to find either an overall shape for the evening, which simply dragged on from fable to fable, or a way of animating in the theater what La Fontaine had meant for the printed page and parlor recitation. Instead of letting the animals speak their own stories (I kept wishing Paul Sills had staged the piece story-theater style, but the French have probably never heard of Paul Sills), Wilson distanced the text by employing narrators outside the scene, most often an actress (the excellent Christine Fersen) dressed as La Fontaine. While being described, the animals made—oh, big surprise—animal noises. Every obvious point was hammered home, any possible subtlety tossed out the window. Some of Michael Galasso’s mock-Baroque music had charm, as did Elisabeth Doucet’s stylized makeup. (Kuno Schlegelmilch’s masks, in a random assortment of styles, looked like a first-year design-class project.) One piece was narrated, inexplicably, by a donkey; I couldn’t help thinking it was Wilson’s way of telling us the whole event was being transmitted through the sensibility of a jackass.