DIVA TALK: The Gypsy In Their Souls

DIVA TALK: The Gypsy In Their Souls On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the New York press was invited to an open rehearsal for the upcoming production of Gypsy, starring Betty Buckley and Deborah Gibson, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. The rehearsal was held in one of the cavernous rooms on the third floor of the Westbeth Theatre Center in the West Village. The large, rectangular space contained three rows of chairs set up on bleachers against the back wall, facing an open space with numerous props leaning against the opposite wall.

On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the New York press was invited to an open rehearsal for the upcoming production of Gypsy, starring Betty Buckley and Deborah Gibson, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. The rehearsal was held in one of the cavernous rooms on the third floor of the Westbeth Theatre Center in the West Village. The large, rectangular space contained three rows of chairs set up on bleachers against the back wall, facing an open space with numerous props leaning against the opposite wall.

Anyone familiar with the classic Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical immediately recognized such Gypsy paraphernalia as Caroline, the "moo cow"; the coat rack with Rose's hat and coat; the table set with Chinese food for "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You," as well as dozens of other stage props. To the left of the bleachers were the musicians and the star of the show, Betty Buckley, who was busy studying her script. Buckley joked that "the scariest thing is remembering my lines, because Rose talks non-stop! This is a sacred show," she explained. "It's in everybody's consciousness, and everybody knows the lines. So if you mess up, you don't just look stupid, you look really stupid," she laughed. "That's the intimidating part, because you know that every musical theatre junkie in the business knows this show backward and forward, and you'd better get it right!"

When all the press had arrived and assembled their cameras, the artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse, Robert Johanson, thanked everyone for coming and related an anecdote about performing as Tulsa in a college production of Gypsy, his first association with the musical. "At the opening performance, about 15 minutes into the show, right after 'Some People,'" Johanson said, "there was a power failure that went on for about 20 minutes. Then the power came back on, and we went on with the show. We found out the next morning that at exactly the time [of our power failure], Gypsy Rose Lee had died. I've never forgotten it, and I've always wanted us to be able to do this show at Paper Mill. It really takes the right cast and the right creative people to do it properly, and I think we have assembled those people."

Johanson then introduced the director of the Paper Mill company, Mark Waldrop, the lyricist and director of the recent Off-Broadway hit, When Pigs Fly. Waldrop spoke briefly, saying, "I think we've assembled an extraordinary cast. I consider Gypsy to be the best musical ever written. And, as I've worked on the show and gotten deeper into it, it's only made me more convinced that it's as fresh today as it was 40 years ago."

The audience was treated to six numbers from the musical. First up were the Newsboys, who introduced Dainty June, played by Alexandra Kiesman, who delighted the audience with her singing, dancing and acrobatic skills. A hard act to follow, director Waldrop commented, but "if anyone can follow it, it's our Mama Rose, Betty Buckley." And, follow it, she did. Buckley performed an electric, thrilling rendition of Rose's first song, "Some People." Her voice is so intensely powerful and rich, even without the benefit of a microphone, it just knocks you out. Without costumes, make-up, a set or proper lighting, Buckley's delivery is still extremely focused and concentrated. When she hollered to her father, "Then I'll get it somewhere else! but I'll get it, and I'll get my kids out," it was riveting, and her sound was so exciting on the lyric "Goodbye to blueberry pie" that I can hardly imagine how wonderful it will sound in the theatre. Laura Bell Bundy, the former Ruthless! star, and Deborah Gibson followed with a well-sung "If Momma Was Married," and then Buckley returned for a duet with Lenny Wolpe, who plays her love interest Herbie. The two delighted the listeners with a sweet rendition of "You'll Never Get Away from Me," one of the more tender moments of the show. Deborah Gibson reappeared as the reinvented Louise, Gypsy Rose Lee, teasing the audience with a bit of her strip act and a belty take on the final verse of "Let Me Entertain You."

Director Waldrop then announced, "There's one more song that we knew everyone would feel not satisfied without hearing," so Buckley returned to perform Gypsy's Act I closing number, 'Everything's Coming Up Roses.'" It was another expertly shaded, sensational turn from the star of the show. I particularly loved the way she altered -- just slightly -- the melody on "there's the bell, follow me," and when she belted the line, "and nothing's gonna stop us till we're through" it was a feast for the senses.

After the performances, the press was allowed time to speak with some of the cast members, and, of course, I chose to speak with the two leading ladies, Buckley and Gibson, who both agreed the rehearsal period for the Paper Mill production is unusually short. "It's only two-and-a-half weeks," said Buckley, adding with a laugh, "which is ridiculous! I'm very spoiled because, in terms of Broadway, they give us six to eight weeks of rehearsal, which is what it should be. But in regional theatre you learn things very fast." And Gibson concurred: "It's really quick, but Gypsy is one of the best-written shows, so it's kind of like, 'just add water,' and the show will come together. And Betty and I are so into our characters, I think it will come together."

Although the two actresses have never worked together previously, they do study with the same voice teacher. "I've bumped into Betty going in and out [of lessons]," said Gibson, "and I had a really lengthy conversation with her at the High Society opening party. We happened to sit next to each other, and we just hit it off so well. We're both excited to be working with each other."

Gibson recently finished her Broadway run as Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast and discovered the title role in Gypsy was hers just one day after her Beauty stint concluded. It's a bit of a leap going from the sweet and innocent Belle to the strip-teasing Gypsy Rose Lee, but Gibson explained the transformation is a two-step process.

"First I go from Belle to Louise, which isn't that bad. And then I go from Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee in the course of the show, so it's kind of all connected. I definitely get to show my sassy side!" When asked whether she is worried about performing the striptease in the second act of the musical, Gibson chuckled and said, "Betty keeps saying to me, 'I'm worried about you because you're too into this striptease!' It's my chance to do what I do, in the sense that I get to work an audience, which you never get to do in a Broadway show unless your Fanny Brice or Gypsy Rose Lee. I really enjoy it, and at 28 I'm more than comfortable with my sensual or sexual side."

And does Gibson have a favorite song from the show? "Little Lamb," she answered, "because it's like the only real quiet moment in the show." When asked the same question, Buckley related that the song she most admires is "Rose's Turn," her climactic, roof-raising number at the end of the show. "I think it's one of the musical theatre's greatest songs," she explained. "The psychological structure of it is so magnificent; it's perfectly crafted. I can't believe Stephen Sondheim was so young when he wrote [the lyric]. 'Rose's Turn' just blows me away in terms of its journey. It's such an incredible piece of writing, a great character song." "Rose's Turn" is a song that, in the hands of the right actress, like Buckley, can stop the show. In fact, Buckley has a knack for stopping shows, whether it's "Memory" in Cats or "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in Sunset Boulevard.

The singing actress also tends to portray characters that are psychologically complex and admitted, "There aren't many parts in musical theatre [like that], and the only other one I can think of is Norma Desmond, who is as rich a character.

"When I was a kid," Buckley continued, "I wanted to be an actress of the ilk of a Geraldine Page or Kim Stanley. I studied to become one of those ladies who could paint complicated and interesting psychological portraits. And, yet, my expertise -- because of my singing -- is the musical theatre, so when you get a chance to bring all your studies together, and a role demands all that you've learned and more, it's very exciting."

The Tony winner also notices a few parallels between two of her favorite musical theatre roles, Mama Rose and Norma Desmond. "They're both really obsessed women," Buckley conceded, "who have a one-pointed notion of themselves and how things need to be. And they're both wounded beings - they're both also very big ladies." Does she see any similarities between herself and Mama Rose, one of the press asked? "Well, just my obsessive love of musical theatre," she said with a laugh. "That could be interpreted as a similarity." Although Gypsy's run at the Paper Mill is limited, Buckley hopes there will be a long life for this production. "I'm very hopeful some producer will take us to London. It hasn't been done there since Angela Lansbury's revival, so I'd love to do that and then do a first-class city tour. Then, enough time will have gone by and we could come into New York. That would be my dream come true." Hey, Mr. Producer, are you listening?

* Gypsy will play at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, from Sept. 9 through Oct. 25. Tickets range from $25-$55 and $10 student tickets may be available 15 minutes prior to curtain. For tickets and more information, call (973) 376-4343.

REMINDERS:

BETTY BUCKLEY

BB has scheduled a few concerts at The Bottom Line. She will perform at 7:30 and 10 PM on Oct. 30 and 31. Nov. 1, show times are 4 PM (the "songs by request" concert) and 8:30 PM. The Bottom Line is located at 15 West 4th Street, and tickets will be on sale at the Bottom Line box office in the near future.

PETULA CLARK

Before Petula Clark begins touring as Norma Desmond in the second national company of Sunset Boulevard, she has a few concerts lined up in the U.S. and in the U.K. First up, is a performance at the Resorts International Hotel (1-800-322-SHOW) in Atlantic City, Sept. 2-7. Then, Clark will perform in the U.K. in the following areas:
September 15 Cheltenham Town Hall (01242 227979)
September 16 Rhyl Pavilion (01745 330000)
September 18 Leamington Spa Royal Spa Centre (01926 334418)
September 19 Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall (01892 530613)
September 20 Worthing Pavilion (01903 820500)
September 21 Reading Hexagon (0118 9606060)
September 23 Bexhill-on-Sea De La Warr Pavilion (01424 787900)


KAREN MASON

On Sept. 10, the former Sunset Boulevard standby-to-the-stars will perform at The Manor -- (973) 731-2360 -- in West Orange, New Jersey, and she will follow that by opening the Bay Street Theatre season on September 26 (516) 725-9500; tix are $25). An appearance at the upcoming Cabaret Convention brings Mason to New York's Town Hall Oct. 13. Mason will teach a master class at UCLA Oct. 14, and then she will sing in concert at that University Oct. 17, a concert that is being presented by Michael Kerker and ASCAP. And, Nov. 4-14, Mason will open Davenports, a new cabaret space in her home town of Chicago.

AUDRA McDONALD

Audra McDonald will perform in concert with the San Francisco Symphony on Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 8:30 PM. Brian Stokes Mitchell and opera singer Frederica von Stade will also perform at Davies Hall that evening; call (415) 864-6000.

BERNADETTE PETERS

Sept. 11-12 in Nashville, TN at the Andrew Jackson Hall
Oct. 16-17 in Atlanta, GA at the Rialto Theatre
Feb. 13, 1999 in Birmingham, AL (venue to come)
Feb. 20 in Toledo, OH (venue to come)
April 9-10 in Kansas City, Missouri
Dec. 31 in Colorado Springs, CO (venue to come)


RAINBOW & STARS

Cybill Shepherd Sept. 8-19.
Kathie Lee Gifford Oct. 6-10
David Campbell Oct. 13-31
Ann Hampton Callaway Nov. 3-14
Karen Akers Nov. 17-5


Next week: Patti LuPone's new concert act, "Matters of the Heart;" The Laurie Beechman Memorial Concert; Christiane Noll's Broadway story and more . . .

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

-- By Andrew Gans
e-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com