Earlier this week I managed to catch one of the few remaining performances of Patti Lupone at the City Center's limited run production of Gypsy. This production has been getting rave reviews all over the city and featured a powerhouse cast of Patti Lupone, Laura Benanti, and Boyd Gaines. The director of the production was the author of the musical's book. There was a larger than standard orchestra. In short everything that a Broadway production would ever need to succeed, right? Somehow though it fell far short of what I was expecting.
First... let me just preface this by saying that maybe I am a harsh critic at the moment. I have spent the last three months immersed in another production of this show so I've imagined the staging and production of this show in many different ways. This production however came up short in almost every aspect that I can imagine.
First, Ms. Lupone. She's great. She has a great voice, an enormous stage presence and a thrilling electricity to her performances. It would seem like this was the role she was born to play, and in fact many have said exactly that. They were wrong. She chewed this role up and steamrolled over it in a way that left no room for sympathy for her. I know Mama Rose is supposed to be a hard as nails bitch of a woman, but jeez... give me some reason to believe that Herbie put up with her for all those years. The worst example of this was the final number, the famous "Rose's Turn." Lupone shredded this song, screaming, sobbing, belting and pounding every note with nowhere for the audience to breathe and nowhere for a character to come through.
Anyone who read my past reviews will know that I have no love for Laura Benanti either, especially her performance in Wedding Singer, but this was the perfect role for her. Her boyish looks and understated performance were great for Louise, and her transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee was amazing. I could really feel her emotion as she looked into the mirror and stated "I'm pretty Mama!" I don't know if it is the way she carried herself, or costuming or what but as Louise she seemed 6 inches shorter and much less endowed than she did as the tall and buxom Gypsy. THIS performance worked.
The direction was a whole different matter, and the place where I think the production really fell down. The performances were often staged much more in the manner of a reading, or a concert, sung out to the audience and in total disregard to the other players on stage. The sisters' song "If Mama Were Married" is supposed to be the moment where these two girls who had long been played against each other by their mother realize that if they work together they have much more power. The staging of this production though placed them on opposite sides of the stage with very little interaction between them, and not so much as a hug at the end of the number. Similarly the climatic resolution of the conflict between Rose and Gypsy at the end of "Rose's Turn" was undermined by a scenery move that was very unfortunately timed, and Gypsy walks away, alone at the end of the number leaving Rose alone on stage. That piece of staging lets you know, here at the end of the show, that it had really been all about Patti all along, and the other performances and players truly didn't matter as much as her moment in the sun.
The set design left quite a bit to be desired as well. I understand that it was minimal and constrained, but several of the choices for what did end up on stage were very odd. The first moment that it caught my eye was in the kitchen at the beginning. The scenery consisted of a door, a table and chairs and a large breakfront. The breakfront however featured several doors that were askew and off the hinges, and drawers with missing pulls. It was grossly overstated to the point of looking like something out of a Loonie Tunes design. The rest of the show didn't fare much better. The strippers' dressing room at the Burlesque house didn't seem dirty enough, and Gypsy's upscale star dressing room at the end didn't seem clean enough.
But the biggest WTF moment of the show was the sheep. This show traditionally features several live animals, a dog, a monkey, a bird, and a sheep. In this performance the dog was stuffed. The bird was cut. The monkey was referred to off stage but never seen. And the sheep... the sheep was a puppet. A rod puppet performed by an actor in dark grey period dress who didn't look at all different from the other dozen performers on stage at the moment. He runs through the scene, performing a running sheep rod puppet, and is chased by the other members of the cast. I've seen shows with puppets, and I've designed shows with puppets, and one of the cardinal rules is that the puppets have to be established. The audience has to know how to think of the puppet. Is the performer to be ignored? Or is the performer just as important as the puppet? Are the other cast members aware that the puppet character is in any way different, or do they accept that this is a real animal? In this case the sheep is the only puppet in the show, and is only performed once. With no previous puppets to help us establish what this thing is supposed to be the performance was jarring and bizarre. If you are going to do it for the sheep, why not the monkey? Why not the bird? Or a cat? It was a bad choice in a sea of bad choices.
Gypsy closed on Sunday so you won't get a chance to see it, but frankly... you aren't missing anything. If, as it seems most of the audience did, you only want to hear Lupone as Gypsy.. buy the inevitable album and consider yourself lucky.