by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Steven Sondheim
starring Patti LuPone
at City Center, Encores
Yes, in case you're wondering, Ben Brantley must have been on crack when he wrote his by now infamous dissent to what is currently the most talked about performance in New York.
LuPone has long been a favorite target of Broadway bitchiness due to her unrestrained, sometimes warbling belting, passion over technique, and rumors of offstage divadom. But let's face it: with musical theatre in an age of mechanical reproduction, how refreshing it is to feel a human pulse on stage, for an actress to stare us in the eyes, pour her heart out, and fully inhabit the spotlight of a star.
But definitely by the point of that Act One finale, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," things got scary. As they should. LuPone's intensity, locking her eyes into Louise, drilling those words "I had a dream...." into her and us, sent audible shivers down some audience spines around me. Sure, she wandered around the stage a bit, sure some words got garbled (perhaps the mics). But the timing and pacing of her energy just nailed the song. It erupted so fully so quickly. At once you sensed both the performer LuPone barely containing her wish to rip into the song along with the desperation of the character, Rose, in getting through to her daughter before she even thinks of giving up.
If you read the accounts of what the artistic team wanted from that number--to portray the fragmenting of the human mind in musical theatre vocabulary--then it's hard to imagine a more faithful realization than LuPone's. By accounts, Merman's had all the power but lacked depth. I can attest to Bernadette Peters negotiating the many musical challenges with expertise, but without the insanity.
That old combination of pity and terror. By pushing the latter to the edge, LuPone achieved the former for this complicated character. And I mean pity as in "pitiful", pathos as in "pathetic".
As for the rest of "Gypsy"--and I suppose there is a "rest of"--it remains a masterfully constructed, if somewhat maudlin, example of the artform. The last of the tin-pan-alley tuners, the forerunner of the "concept" musicals. Because of the great ambitions of the show in psychological realism, the older conventions don't hold up as well: the silly vaudeville numbers, the obligatory love duet ("All I Need is the Girl") in a show with no love. There's an interesting account in Laurents' memoirs of the tension in rehearsals between his own dramaturgical goals and Jerome Robbins' constant search for more dance numbers. That unresolved bifurcation is still much in evidence, I think.
To return to Brantley's complaint. The marvel of watching LuPone is her sheer presence. She has something that Bernadette Peters could never have had, no matter how hard she tried to "act" it: desperation. Specifically the desperation of an outsider. She shoves, she steams, she scours as if it is her natural state. When a performer is just right for a role, they exude more in their body than any dramatist can write into a line. So even when LuPone seems to be coasting a bit, or not totally filling the lines or the songs, to look at her tells you everything you need to know about this character.
But hey, that's all theatre, too.