Volume II, Issue II Summer 2003

The driven women of 'Gypsy' make a smashing revival

Review by Lucy Komisar

Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Suggested by the "Memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee"

Directed by Sam Mendes

Sam S. Shubert Theatre
225 W. 44 St.
New York
Through August 30


The best theater is about real-life desires and angst. A woman lives through her daughters because she's never had the chances she's giving them. "I was born too soon and I started too late," she complains. It may be an old story, but when Sam Mendes chronicles Mama Rose's campaign to make star entertainers of June and Louise, it is powerful and exhilarating.

The story of "Gypsy" – for Louise became Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque "Park Avenue stripper" – is also enormously entertaining, narrated in vaudeville-style vignettes which Mendes directs with verve and wit.

Bernadette Peters' searing renditions of songs that tell of her obsession makes you sympathize and identify with her. You root for her when she sings "Some People," on fighting the boredom of life. Peters' Rose is a seductive charmer in the service of a mission; she is a nervy, determined impresario. But she is no monster stage mother. (The monster mother is a sexist stereotype that deserves to be retired.) I liked this Rose a lot.

What can you do with a children's act? Mendes plays to the hokeyness in funny, campy send-ups of flag-waving tap dancing. Heather Tepe is a comic as June the child star in glittery costume and screechy voice. (June would become actress June Havoc.)

There are funny hijinks when Roses and her young troop – the girls now joined by boy dancers – flumox the unpaid landlord (Brooks Ashmanskas) to the tune of "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You."

Gypsy You feel the melancholy – perhaps more than Rose does! – when, refusing to share her attentions, she gives up Herbie (John Dossett), the salesman she had persuaded to agent the act and who became her lover.

The other "stars" of this musical are writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, here all at their best, the work as fresh as when it first played Broadway in 1959. These are melodies and lyrics you remember! In addition to "Some People," the crowd-pleasing favorites are "Small World," "You'll Never Get Away From Me" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

Mendes uses a lot of Jerome Robbins' original, effervescent choreography. David Burtka as Tulsa and Tammy Blanchard (Louise) do a moving, elegant pas de deux of unrequited love, "All I Need Is the Girl."

A show-stopper is the brazen "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," a droll advice number by three strippers – Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and Julie Halston – with electrifying lights giving new meaning to garishness.

Were either of Rose's children grateful? Since it's a true story, it couldn't get a Hollywood ending. When June decides to leave vaudeville, Rose makes a star of her less talented daughter. Louise may have had little talent, but Blanchard shimmers with it. And Louise outdoes her mother in toughness and egotism. That's the true Hollywood ending.

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