Patti LuPone in Gypsy(© Jim Steere/Ravinia Festival)
Patti LuPone in Gypsy
(© Jim Steere/Ravinia Festival)
It would be madness to think that Gypsy-ites aren't as driven as their Wagnerian cousins. If you happened to be motoring anywhere in the vicinity of Chicago's Ravinia Festival from August 11 to 13, you couldn't have helped but hear a bouquet of Roses -- Ethel, Angela, Bernadette, etc. -- blaring from surrounding car speakers. The clan was gathering to welcome a new "Mama Rose" to the pantheon of those who have played Broadway's answer to Brunnhilde.

No musical duchess past 50 can claim her crown until she's made a splash as a Rose, Dolly, and/or Mame. After winning acclaim for her tuba-toting Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Patti LuPone has now taken her next step up the ladder of Angela Lansburyism with her performance as Gypsy's Rose in her 10th annual appearance at Ravinia. And just as Kirsten Flagstad's Brunnhilde effortlessly caused the Rhine to overflow with her "Immolation Scene," LuPone's performance of "Rose's Turn" roused her audience to a frenzy.

Unlike Bernadette Peters in her recent Broadway portrayal, LuPone never had to stretch to fulfill the grueling demands of this ultimate challenge for a female musical performer; it's all in her natural vocal and dramatic range. She played Rose as neither a battle-ax nor a kewpie doll, and her ability to switch from wry sarcasm to wounded martyrdom in a single sentence gave her characterization the essential combination of toughness and vulnerability. It was a thrill to experience LuPone's unexpected additions to the Rose lexicon, such as the way she threw herself at Herbie when he walked out on her. The star projected genuine warmth and an appropriate humor to animate Arthur Laurents' already perfect book.

If one didn't know better, one might have imagined that Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim had fashioned the score precisely for her multi-faceted vocal gifts. LuPone had this date since she first stepped out on that Buenos Aires balcony to hypnotize the populus of Argentina. With the same icy-tender charisma she radiated 27 years ago as Evita, she held all in her path as emotional prisoners. She was warmer than Ethel Merman, more down-to-earth than the film version's Roz Russell, less elegant than Lansbury, not as dangerous as Tyne Daly or as sexual as Peters. In sum, she may have given us the most human of all Roses.

What made LuPone's Ravinia victory somewhat hard-won was her battle with the grievously rushed tempos of longtime Sondheim conductor Paul Gemignani, leading members of the Chicago Symphony. Gemignani didn't slow down to a reasonable pace until well into Act II. On the plus side: This theatergoer had expected a semi-staged concert version of Gypsy, so it was a delightful surprise to encounter Lonny Price's adept, almost fully staged production and Bonnie Walker's faithful homages to the original choreography of Jerome Robbins. The experience was akin to attending a party with no higher hopes than canapés and instead being served a succulent meal.

Except for a strange, Funny Girl-like flashback prologue with a grown-up Louise decked out in mink, this was a reverent and skillfully paced staging, propelled by the apt metaphor of cast members emerging from a giant vaudeville trunk. Also effective were Tony Straiges' spare set pieces and, particularly, Kevin Adams' luminous lighting.

Despite the grandeur of LuPone's performance, this was no one-woman show. There may be some trumpery afoot, as it would seem that no cast could have performed so vibrantly for a three-day run without the ulterior motive of a future production. Jack Willis gave us a winningly gruff take on the ever-loyal Herbie, while Jen Temen was a maniacally adorable June. Jessica Boevers as Louise/Gypsy perfectly captured the introverted teenager morphing into the nascent "oomph" of the world's most famous stripper. As Tessie Tura, Mazeppa, and Electra (respectively), Debra Watassek, Jane Blass, and Derin Altay performed "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" with magnificently Hogarthian vulgarity.

Just when you thought Gypsy couldn't possibly get better, it did.