PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Gypsy: Momma Rose, Rock Star

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Gypsy: Momma Rose, Rock Star
That mother of all stage mothers, Momma Rose, charged down the aisle of the St. James Theatre on March 27, planted her pins squarely on the Broadway stage and proceeded to preach to the converted. Home again, Rose — only this time it was Patti's turn.
Patti LuPone and Arthur Laurents, Boyd Gaines, Leigh Ann Larkin and Laura Benanti, Leonora Nemetz, Alison Fraser and Marilyn Caskey, Tony Yazbeck, Emma Rowley and Katie Micha.
Patti LuPone and Arthur Laurents, Boyd Gaines, Leigh Ann Larkin and Laura Benanti, Leonora Nemetz, Alison Fraser and Marilyn Caskey, Tony Yazbeck, Emma Rowley and Katie Micha. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Following some formidable legends in the role of Gypsy's showbiz-or-bust matriarch (one of whom was in the audience, and another who was no doubt rapping her fingers irritatingly from On High), Patti LuPone more than Rose to the occasion. Heeding her own opening-line words of advice, she not only sang out, she sang it out of the ballpark, attacking this titan role with fury yet finding some soft spots, funny and warm, along the way.

Okay, most of us were primed-for-Patti, having caught her dry-run at the role last summer in an extended "Encores!" presentation, and a few of her more dedicated disciples even trekked to the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago a couple of years ago to watch her first get Rose on her toes — so the rowdy, gluttonously-gulped reception she received was something of a slam-dunk. At the end of her mighty 11 o'clock number, all rose and dutifully gave it up to the diva, cheering madly and at length like it was a rock concert or something. In a season of roof-lifting, exuberant new musicals like Passing Strange and In the Heights, it was reassuring to see the old powerhouse musicals can still pack a helluvah leveling punch.

And, speaking of leveling, this was no Greedy Patti. At the curtain call, she literally prostrated herself on stage, hands outstretched, in front of her whole company. Sharing the wealth more, she rushed off stage and brought back the show's surviving creators, book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The applause was protracted, seemingly unstoppable until Sondheim stopped it by simply raising his hand and saying the right thing — asking the audience to remember the show's late composer, Jule Styne, as well. (The on-stage orchestra, a good two dozen strong and conducted by Patrick Vaccariello, gave that great overture a glorious read and honored one of Broadway's most enduring scores.)

The rock ambiance continued at Mansion on West 28th, a one-time Spice Girls haunt and now a pedestrian gridlock for first-nighters. LuPone, looking more than a little relieved and relatively relaxed, liked the rock-concert allusion and bought into it completely. "Yeah, I know," she agreed. "What about that? That'll lend it a couple of weeks."

As post-rock events go, this one had one important difference: The joint rocked with Merman, Channing and a bouncy assortment of Broadway sounds, personally picked by LuPone. "I said, 'I don't want to hear Disco Stomp. I want to hear Broadway show tunes at a Broadway opening.'" When she heard "You're Just in Love" from Call Me Madam go off in the background, she stopped talking a beat, as if the thought just crossed her mind that that might be a good show for her to do. No word from The Merm, although the parade to and from Mansion came with a mild drizzle.

The most LuPone would or could say about the Everest she'd just conquered was: "I'm lucky. I get great parts to play. Every part leads me to the next one. That one informs this one informs that one. I'm lucky for that, and I supposed it has all culminated in this."

Laurents, at 89, proved something of a miracle worker in directing the production, finding new meaning and depth in his words. He has directed Gypsy in the past — notably, a revival at the very same St. James starring a Tony-winning Tyne Daly — but this time he seems to have gone for the guttural. Where did this newfound power come from? He couldn't say. "It's a long story," he replied, waving away the question.

The writer-director was accompanied by David Saint, artistic director of the George Street Playhouse, where a number of Laurents' latter-day plays have premiered (but not Jolson Sings Again, the blacklisting play that provoked a long LuPone-Laurents falling-out and delayed the triumph that both are now sharing.) Saint will assist Laurents' next project — directing and rethinking a revival of West Side Story.

Boyd Gaines, who plays Rose's hapless foil and road manager, was helpful in explaining the extra dramatic edge that Laurents has brought to the show: "Having done that quick rough sketch for City Center last summer and then having this extra time to rehearse, the idea was to go deeper and darker and to really do the play. Certainly, that was our intention, and I think we've succeeded. A lot of people have said, 'I never saw it that way. I never even considered it this way. I didn't realize what a good play it is.' All of us are used to doing plays. In fact, I think of them all as plays, then you have the technical problems of the music and the words and the lyrics and all that — but they're all plays to me."

In the title role of the shy tomboy who turns into a worldly and womanly Gypsy Rose Lee, Laura Benanti is a butterfly of Bethlehem Steel standing up to the pushy, hard-driving LuPone. Their final confrontation, with Laurents' go-for-broke direction, is a heartbreaker. The clutter of a dressing table is hurled on the floor in a moment of rage, then the two slowly and silently clean up the mess as if they were picking up parts of their shattered lives.

"If I did have a favorite moment in the show," Benanti said, ducking an obvious question, "I wouldn't say what it is, because it would be gone from me. It wouldn't be my secret anymore."

Like Gaines, she too enjoyed the luxury of extra rehearsal. "I think we've all grown. When you only have two weeks to work on something, it's going to be what it is — but we had another four weeks to delve deeper into the relationships of these characters. It obviously helped."

Leigh Ann Larkin may have grown an additional layer of skin in the interim, considering how ferociously she goes after Dainty June, the hard-shelled designated star of Momma Rose's roost (in real life, June Havoc). "I think June has anger and all kinds of colors," Larkin admitted. "Each performance I try to tell the play as best I can. Arthur and I worked together very closely on this role. He gives me ideas and allows me to run with my ideas. He's been so supportive and wonderful."


Angela Lansbury and Dina Merrill, Stephen Pasquale, Matthew Broderick and Laura Linney, Donna Murphy, Thomas Meehan, John Doyle and Scott Wittman.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Freshly recruited from A Chorus Line, Tony Yazbeck has a heart-charging moment as Tulsa, the kid who steps out of Momma Rose's chorus line of Newsboys into the star spot for the showstopping "All I Need Is the Girl" (which, like all the songs, retains Jerome Robbins' brilliant choreography). It occurs near the end of the first act. He departs for parts unknown, never to be seen again until the curtain call.

Yazbeck is rather thankful he's denied that much-deserved bow. "I'm so tired at the end of that number I think I just have enough energy to waddle off the stage, but I stick around to see how it was enjoyed."

It was a sentimental evening for him. "Both my parents were there tonight," he said, "and they were there when I got the job of a newsboy in the Tyne Daly revival. It was always a dream of mine since I was a kid to play Tulsa, and to have them there tonight was doubly more meaningful for me than just doing that role. I felt like I was giving back to them."

One of the newsboys in this production used to tend bar next door at Angus McIndoe's. After the show, Matty Price bopped by and was greeted like Charlemagne (to the wry amusement of Sondheim, sitting at the bar). "They all went crazy," Price said. "This is a crazy business, though. You go from waiting tables to that — it's, like, whoa! A real roller coaster. I used to work at Bubba Gump's. I have worked on 44th Street ever since I moved to Manhattan. It just keeps getting better."

Lenora Nemetz, who memorably took over for an ailing Gwen Verdon and replaced Chita Rivera in the original production of Chicago, replaced the now-touring Nancy Opel in two crucial roles — the officious theatrical secretary well-named Miss Cratchitt, and Mazeppa who "bumps it with a trumpet." The latter joined Electra (Marilyn Caskey) and Tessie Tura (Alison Fraser) in that classic stripper sister-act, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."

Caskey continued to be a source of merriment, moving about the stage gingerly and befogged — as if Electra has gotten her share of accidental volts. "She thinks she's dancing her heart out, too. And, when I'm crossing the stage, I'm thinking, 'Where did I put that bottle?' The part is so beautifully written. It really is. I mean, that line 'I'm electrifying / And I'm not even trying' is brilliant. And it's handed right to you." Fraser hoped her stripping sorority reflected some measure of depth. "I got my laughs, but I also think I got the reality — and that's the important thing for me," she said. "She's based in reality, and you realize that these are real people. These are women with history, trying to make their way in the world. It's just so much more interesting to play that than to play a cartoon."

Two of Sondheim's book writers attended the opening: Sunday in the Park with George's James Lapine and Pacific Overture's John Weidman. The latter is working on Sondheim's latest, Bounce. When asked if it would still be done at The Public, he didn't say no. He said, "Er, there's going to be announcement."


Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents at the curtain call.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Others in attendance: Laura Linney, Lauren Bacall, Sian Phillips, Stephen Pasquale, Celia Weston, Marylouise Burke, Mandy Patinkin (with a beard), Liz Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick (now working on a "30 Rock" episode), Scott Ellis, Kathleen Marshall, 44x10's Scott Hart, Scott Wittman, Donna Murphy and Shawn Elliott, The Fantasticks' Tom Jones, John Doyle, producer Fred Zolla (who's bringing Al Pacino back to Broadway in the fall), Rob Fisher, Phyllis Newman, Chez Josephine's Jean-Claude Baker in a Tibetan robe ("I am suffering for Tibet"), director Michael Wilson (Broadway-bound with Dividing the Estate) and Wayne Knight.

The Tony-winning Momma Rose in the audience was Angela Lansbury, who, unlike her predecessor in the role, thinks nothing about another performer usurping the role. "Oh, Patti and I are old friends," she said. "We're going to do a benefit together soon for The Acting Company." Patti is an alum, and Lansbury's brother, Edgar, is an exec.

The cast of <i>Gypsy</i> takes its bow.
The cast of Gypsy takes its bow. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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