Sunday, August 3, 2008

NYC Trip 1

This weekend, I made one of my regular pilgrimage's to the Great White Way cramming in 3 shows in under 30 hours. I began with a show that can only be described as a religious experience for any self-described musical theatre zealot: Patti LuPone as Momma Rose. The publicity for the show says simply, "At Last..." which is the most apropos statement for her TONY-winning performance. Beyond Patti's brilliant performance, beyond the ten-minute standing ovation that followed "Rose's Turn," and beyond Laura Benanti's equally deserving TONY as Gypsy nee Louise, the show is a smart, innovative, and entirely original staging of a work that could be described as the quintessential backstage musical.

Directed by the book writer himself, Arthur Lawrence proves he is not too tired or too afraid to reimagine his work with a completely contemporary approach while maintaining the traditions and connotations associated with the classic. Using Jerome Robbins' original choreography, he scales back the production to a minimalistic, expressionistic, dare I say even Brechtian simplicity. The concept reflects Broadway's penchant of late for evocative rather than elaborate sets and earns its place among other reimagined revivals such as Sam Mendes' Cabaret and the long-running Chicago. There is not one moment or choice in the show that was not thoroughly thoughtful, deliberate, and inspired. In my opinion, it is the perfect Gypsy.

The show begins with the onstage orchestra striking those famous four chords under full stage lights - a verfremdungseffekt that this is a show about show business. As the overture comes to conclusion, a crumbling and decrepit proscenium and curtain descend onto the stage, a visual metaphor for the crumbling vaudeville circuit to which Momma Rose so aspires. When the children file on for the first scene at Uncle Jocko's all are dressed in sepia tones save Baby June whose bright blue babydoll dress and exaggerated make-up give her the demonic Whatever-Happened-to-Baby-Jane look. The idea is furthered in June's performance as an overworked, fed-up childhood star: actress Leigh Ann Larkin delivers her lines with a zombie-like monotone completely antithetical to Baby June's overly perky on-stage persona. The effect is not only comical, but haunting - a juxtaposition to the ultra-humanistic performances of the three above-the-title stars.

It is this very humanism that earned the three stars TONY awards this year. Patti's Momma Rose abandons the gruff, linebacker-for-my-dreams approach to which most actresses fall prey (for example, Bette Midler in that awful made-for-TV version). Instead, this Momma Rose is charming, smart before she is pushy, and a femme fatale who knows how to use her sex appeal to get her way. Laura Benanti's Louise is shy and awkward that allows the actress to deliver such a complete transformation during "The Strip" that you wonder if it is the same actress at all. However, her crystalline vocal acuity in delivering "Little Lamb" (a number which I have long hated) alone earned her the TONY in my book. I expected to be more impressed with Boyd Gaines' Herbie; however, his characterization definitely delivered choices that made me believe he truly loved Rose and that his role was more than a limp biscuit. What was truly remarkable about all three actors' performances was that I believed they were truly invested in each other and having a good time. There's something about seeing a group of professionals just have fun at their craft (even on the Broadway scale) that makes the experience worthy. The trio "Together Wherever We Go" stuck in my head for the first time not as a pariah of catchy song writing, but as a true expression of love and familial stick-togetheredness.

Not only do I think this is the perfect Gypsy, but I feel it is a thinking person's Gypsy. It's a presentation of the show that never panders to laughs, that strives for realism in the delivery of scenes when most directors insist on funnier/faster/more, that takes bold choices without apology. (Although, it is very funny especially with the inspired performance of "Gotta Get a Gimmick.") Most of all, it is a show about show business and about the fine performances of an incredible ensemble. Every aspect of this show was in place to support the performance as opposed to distract, amplify, or obfuscate the story as happens too often on Broadway (see my up-coming article on In the Heights). The most remarkable scene could be the finale when Rose is confronted by Gypsy Rose Lee - a scene that has been scrutinized as a Broadway Happy Ending as opposed to the truth of the actual story. Instead of reworking the book, Arthur Lawrence delivers an interpretation of the scene that conveys the fact that Gypsy never forgave her mother and the audience is left with the image of Rose clinging toward the dimming lights on her personal marquee as if to hold onto the dream. The hope and the desperation in this final image convey the plight that we all engage in when we are bitten by the bug of show business. This Gypsy is not only an homage to a life in the theatre, it is a religiously performative event for all of us who pine away for a role in the business called show.


Rotherhithe said...

Well it’s certainly an experience to see LaPone in this archetypal role but the “perfect production”?

I gather it originates from the same concert staging season that resulted in the international hit production of "Chicago", but where as the minimalism there suited the cruelty of the humour and situation this staging just looks cheap. Tickets are expensive, I wanted to see a classic Broadway production in all it’s over blown blousy glory, or something meaningfully re-imagined not something slung together for as little cost as possible.

This show’s got to be taking a lot of money at the box office. Would it have eaten into profits too much to pay for one less massive billboard advertisement and to have built a set instead… ? or assembled a supporting cast strong enough to hold the stage against PLP….? or even just hired a live lamb!

If all you care about is PLP, and she is very good – reaching subtleties we’ve no reason or right to expect from the strangulated voweled one – then you’ll have a great evening. (My God, those queens were giving standing ovations every five minutes, sometimes just for the opening bars of an introduction! As the current joke goes, this is the only Broadway show where the interval Q for the male restroom is longer then for the ladies).

But this is a mean spirited conservative production, under cast and under staged which is why it’ll only play to seniors and gay men like me.

A director and designer (and a budget) could have re-imagined the show for a whole new audience. And no one has the right to call them self a producer if they don’t have the courage to facilitate that process.

Like being a Sith Lord the position of producer comes with great power but also great responsibility… otherwise curate a museum, for this production is a tatty museum piece, or stage a sing-a-long at the magic kingdom.

In my opinion the best show on Broadway is the explosive family drama "August:Osage County". A beautifully designed, masterfully directed and conceived, exquisitely acted, roller coaster of an evening that delivers massive laughs and heart-stopping drama. Can’t wait to have it in London this autumn.

TheatreSnob said...

Thanks for your comment. I couldn't agree with you more about August: Osage County. I saw it before I started blogging and would have raved for pages about it's contribution to American Theatre. I also appreciate your differing views of the production of Gypsy. I disagree, however, in that I think the choice to ignore "production values" is the boldest choice this show makes. I think this choice represents a simplifying or "minimalizing" of the stage in order to merely provide a platform for great performances (supporting cast included) to tell a story that is about life upon the stage. For me, I'm far more interested in the magic of a great performance and script than the expensively cheap magic of theatre technology. But, I love your comments and welcome differing views - after all, theatre should be democratic.