It was with with great trepidation that I attended the first preview of New York City Center's production of "Gypsy" on Monday. Not only was one of my favorite musical theatre actresses starring on one of my favorite musicals, but said actress had already performed the role to near-unanimous raves in Chicago last year. There was no way, I thought, this show could live up to the impossible expectations I set for it.
Well, it did. And it surpassed them.
Patti LuPone's Mama Rose is a terrifying tornado of ego, determination and fury, and just like one of those windstorms, instinct might tell an observer it's time to hide under a chair, but one can't help and watch the raw destructiveness at its finest. Witness the well-known Act 1 closer "Everything's Coming Up Roses," which could easily be diluted thanks to innumerable versions by everyone from Ethel Merman to That Middle-Aged Lady Who Gets Cast In Every Production At Your Local Community Theatre. Well, as LuPone ferociously circles the stage spitting out the song, this doesn't feel like yet another actress staking her claim on a warhorse. Just watch Louise (Laura Benanti) and Herbie (Boyd Gaines) cower in fear during the number as if they were at a mausoleum facing a fireball-shooting Phantom of the Opera. And it doesn't feel like an overreaction. And you know that moment is still to come.
LuPone could have been backed up by the children's choir on the touring company of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and this show would be worth seeing, but fortunately, the supporting cast assembled here is top-of-the-class. Count me among those who thought Benanti was miscast, but unrecognizably awkward in a wig that makes her look like a young Imogene Coca (did such a being ever exist?), her inevitable transformation from gawky to swan is stunning. Leigh Ann Larkin brings a new vision to Baby June, making her far less squeaky and grating and more just plain agitated. It works. The scene-stealing strippers--Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel and Marilyn Caskey--also don't disappoint, particularly Caskey as the brain-fried Electra, who brings the house down with an inaudible, deadpan whisper. Someone save this woman from eight shows a week as Madame Giry! My only casting quibble is that Tony Yazbeck is really too good of a dancer as featured newsboy Tulsa, although to be fair, his number and scene were always my least favorite in the show, anyway.
Sets are scarce, and pacing is awkward at times -- and for pity's sake, this was a first preview -- but none of that matters. When that moment, "Rose's Turn," arrived, the woman next to me whispered, "Fasten your seat belts." Good advice. But an equally thrilling moment comes afterward, in the close of the show that has almost always felt rather anti-climactic to me. Leave it to LuPone to find a way -- oh, and I guess the show's creator and this production's director, Arthur Laurents, deserves some credit -- to top the ultimate 11 o'clock number.
Look at my past reviews. I often praise but rarely gush. Don't miss this show.