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Arts & Entertainment
Patti Lupone’s Gypsy at the St. James Theatre
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
September 17, 2008
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Anticipation is everything. On the way into the lobby, tickets in hand, one woman said breathlessly to another, “I can’t believe we’re here. At last.” Two gay boys were so giddy they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. There was a buzz throughout the theatre. It was a Wednesday night in late September—and even though Gypsy had been running for six months at the sumptuous St. James Theatre, there was the feeling of an opening night. The excitement was palpable—and cut across all demographics, from the newbies, all of twenty and twenty-one, to the seasoned theatre queens, to the coiffed and silvered couples in their golden years. And then the overture started as one curtain, two curtains, three curtains lifted and parted to reveal the orchestra onstage. Oh, that glorious overture! It swept through the audience, leaving heads bobbing and dipping, fingers dancing on shoulders. The show, that music! Who doesn’t have some reference point for those songs, those characters? And that overture bringing it all back again, a musical memory montage—before the show has even started, before Madame Rose has shouted out her unforgettable opening line, “Sing out, Louise.”

Of course it’s Madame Rose’s show—rather than Gypsy’s—and as everyone from Broadway to Timbuktu now knows, this time it’s Patti Lupone’s triumph. There have been others who’ve inhabited Madame Rose on Broadway before, from Ethel Merman to Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Bernadette Peters—but it’s likely that Lupone will long remain the Rose that people best remember. With her trumpeting voice and a hellbent snarl on her lips that can just as easily curl into a leer, Lupone bulldozes her way through the memory of any previous incarnations of Madame Rose. She’s demanding and determined, to insure that notice is paid, and she utilizes every ounce of her being to cajole, to browbeat, to coerce you into submission. She will have her way; she will make you see that Rose knows best and that no one knows Rose better than she.

What a ferocious performance! Such ferocity of character! It’s small wonder that so much stage time for the other characters involves standing alongside Rose, or at a distance, open-mouthed, gaping, or simply responding—to her. She’s Medea and Lady Macbeth, without the blood on her hands. And yet, as Lupone plays her near the final curtain, she’s also touchingly vulnerable. There’s a catch in her voice when she confesses her desire to be noticed; and she sobs uncontrollably during a moment of catharsis, when suddenly her life choices flash before her eyes.

But as much as it’s Rose’s show (and therefore, Lupone’s), what grips a viewer is the seamlessness of the show’s construction: how smoothly the tale is told, not only of a stage mother and her two daughters, but how well Gypsy reveals American history as lived during the Depression, highlighting aspects of the American character: the ruthless ambition, the burning desire for success, and the yearning for family and home. There’s nothing saccharine about this version of Gypsy—no Hollywood happy-ever-after—and the final sally from Louise, from daughter to mother, is a bitter, lingering laugh.

As the writer of the musical’s book, Arthur Laurents has been with Gypsy since its inception in 1959, and it’s a testament to his tenacious direction that this version of Gypsy is both timely and timeless. Long will we be haunted—and thrilled—by this brilliant production.