Maureen Moore was offered the assignment and took it. I was delighted, for Moore first entranced me in Unsung Cole (as in Porter) in the late '70s, and was a dazzling Charlotte in City Opera's A Little Night Music years later. This spring, when she went on for Peters many times during the star's illness, I wasn't surprised to hear that she was excellent. So once I learned she'd be spelling Peters during the star's well-earned vacation, I jumped at the chance to see Moore rise to Rose.
On Monday night, the Shubert was predictably less than full. Still, there were enough people there to give a modicum of entrance applause as Moore marched onto the stage. Friends and relatives? Fans who'd seen her do the role before? Or just plain nice folks who sympathized with the Herculean task she had to perform?
Like Peters, Moore is a diminutive woman, but she pulls herself up tall for the role. At one moment, she reminded me of Nanette Fabray, and the next, Tovah Feldshuh -- but, even more often, Debbie Reynolds. I'm not sure that any of those ladies would ever have been offered Rose in years past, for it might have been felt that they didn't have the size, but this production acknowledges that small women can have big personalities and dreams.
The dialogue has Moore say early on, "Desperate people do desperate things," but Moore isn't desperate in playing the role. She just goes out and does it proud. The nuances that are so important to any characterization are there. Moore shows real affection for Louise in the first scene, in the way she takes the kid's hand and maternally kisses it. (Later, she shows even more affection to Chowsie.) After her kids hitchhike and snag a driver willing to pick them up, out she saunters with the assurance of someone who knew all along that she'd get a ride. There's astonished disappointment on her face when Herbie tells her that he's given up show business to sell candy but she's totally unruffled when Kringelein, the hotel manager, barges in, for she's been bothered by guys like this a million times and is 100% certain that she can handle him. On the other hand, she lightly pats Mr. Goldstone's cheeks in the affectionate way that aunts relate to their nephews and gives a soothing yet erotic hand rub to Herbie's sore stomach in the Chinese restaurant scene.
Initially, I was a bit unnerved that Moore has created a Rose who always seems "on," masking herself in a persona but not revealing a real person -- but then I decided that this is a defensible interpretation. Isn't Rose more "on" than real? This is the woman who created an act for her daughter in which the kid plans to leave the farm for Broadway and then decides she can't part with her pet cow. That's what Rose thinks people want to believe but not at all what she herself holds dear, so Moore has chosen to accentuate the surface qualities that Rose displays to the world.
In the Omaha Terminal scene, Louise delivers June's letter saying that she has left the act. The way Moore sits decimated after reading it, I thought she'd never be able to get up. But, oh, she does -- and that brings us to "Everything's Coming up Roses." Moore punctuates the verse with many a toss of the head: "They think (toss) that (toss) we're (toss) through (toss), baby." Her singing voice for the rest of the number is a clarion call but she's already shown us by this point that, in addition to the pipes, she has a Mermanesque twang. In "Some People," she plants her feet firmly on stage, almost resembling the Hilary Knight logo for the Lansbury Gypsy, and belts "I-I-I-I-I" and "try-y-y-y-y" in a way that somehow seems effortless. The way she growls "But not Row-s-s-s-e!" hits the spot, too. In "Small World," she wisely saves the sincerity for "small and funny and fine." She smiles as Herbie sings his "Rose, I love you" sequence in "You'll Never Get Away From Me."
So there's substantial applause when the second act curtain goes up and reveals Moore on stage. Later, there's a lot of pain on her face when Louise and Herbie discuss their billing at the burlesque house. But that face displays a look of admiration when Rose is in the wings of Wichita's one and only burlesque theater and sees that her daughter is warming up.
Of course every Rose is ultimately assessed by her "Rose's Turn," and Moore's has the madness of Norma Desmond in it. Here, at the performance I attended, there were full-throated cheers and a thunderclap's worth of applause that came again only moments later when Moore took her curtain call and got her standing ovation.
Ah, standbys and understudies! Do they ever really disappoint? Much more often than not, they prove that they've got what it takes. Maybe you don't know the names Priscilla Behne, Mike Finesilver, Leslie Hendrix, Stacey Todd Holt, Christopher Wells, or Neal Young, but I do, because I saw them all get up early and pull a Shirley MacLaine. And Moore did what all of them did -- make the people leaving the theater feeling as if they got their money's worth, with a few even saying, "Well, I can't imagine that Bernadette Peters is any better." You want me to swear to it? Sure! June, get the Bible.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]