Bernadette Peters in Gypsy(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Bernadette Peters in Gypsy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"If you have a good, strong finish, they'll forgive you for anything," Rose Hovick tells a gaggle of ungifted girls in the second act of the dynamic Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne musical Gypsy. It's a show-biz bromide very much taken to heart by Sam Mendes, who has directed a perfectly adequate revival of the great 1959 musical that made Ethel Merman a bigger entertainment legend than she already was.

Bernadette Peters, as the stage Momma to end all stage Mommas, is clearly another advocate of the performance philosophy she cheerfully relays. Proving vociferous pre-opening naysayers very wrong, she gives patrons not one strong finish but two. For the first act finale, she takes the ominously thrilling "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and javelins it to the back of the auditorium where it penetrates the wall and vibrates well into intermission. For the second act finale, she plays the brilliantly melodramatic "Rose's Turn" not as a nervous breakdown but as a nervy breakthrough to the anger that a frustrated, would-be performer has stoked during years of trying to push two reluctant daughters into the vaudeville big-time.

Peters will probably never reveal what it felt like to prepare a role for which so many second-guessers claimed she was inappropriate casting. She's too well mannered to allow how she weathered the negative vibes; moreover, having been on stages for 50 years, she's probably inured to such trivialities. She's also unlikely to ever gab about publicity counter-claims that, since she's petite and seductive, she is actually much more like the real Rose than any of her Gypsy predecessors have been.

Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. How many people these days would know, anyway? What audiences want is a galvanizing diva who can make the backstage dragon lady her own and perhaps even erase Merman's indelible print -- or, failing that, fade it somewhat. At this, Peters does a creditable job. A performer who has always radiated vulnerability, she uses that signature trait as an underpinning to her performance. Her Rose is a woman who wears invincibility as a mask hiding her own sense of inferiority and deprivation. The harried but dauntless Rose she plays is a woman dodging the truth about herself while trying to make dreams come true for her girls. It's a portrait of misguided valiance.

For all of that, Peters hasn't as yet formed a consistent characterization. From vignette to vignette in the episodic script, she seems to be starting anew rather than picking up momentum. Nevertheless, she uses her other unique qualities to meet the peak challenges. Take her voice, which she can transform into a kewpie-doll gurgle but more often comes across as a very particular Broadway belt. When she drives her steely notes past the footlights during Rose's melodic proclamations, there is still something of a young girl's timbre to them. Initially, that sound can seem to lack the required womanly brass, yet Peters's childlike bleat resonates with the precocious Baby June's mechanical squeal. For perhaps the first time, Rose's potential to have been a star as a tot, to have been someone who could shake theater rafters more powerfully than her daughter, is made manifest. This shrewd revelation may have been unintended by Peters, Mendes, and colleagues, but there it is.

The always lovable leading lady also brings another intriguing facet to the role. In the scenes with Herbie (John Dossett), the candy salesman whom Rose manipulates back to agenting, there's a sexual undertone that helps explain why the poor guy agrees to act as a doormat for as long as he does. Peters's coquettishness, by the way, reaped the same results when she played opposite Tom Wopat in the first Merman role she took on, Annie Get Your Gun. (What next? La Merm's Happy Hunting, in which another mother pushes her daughter into the spotlight?)

Sam Mendes deserves thanks for Peters's performance as well as for the solid performances he's extracted from the rest of the talented cast. No weak links here! Tammy Blanchard makes the most of Laurents's beautifully written Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee, a girl who goes from wanting to be noticed by her mother to a woman falling in love with the world's attention. Kate Reinders as the grown-up June and Heather Tepe, a JonBenet Ramsay lookalike as the young June, both wear their blonde wigs with pride and are adorably shrill. Then there are Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke, and Julie Halston as (respectively) the strippers Tessie Tura, Mazeppa, and Electra, who queen it over the burlesque house where Rose and June end up with their tired troupe as vaudeville is dying. These canny three get every laugh in their material and, in Halston's case, find a few extra. A salute also to John Dossett, whose masculine good grace serves him well as the smilingly patient Herbie.

Tammy Blanchard in Gypsy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Tammy Blanchard in Gypsy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Where Mendes falters is in his overall production conceit. He's landed on the show business angle and decided that, since so much of the play takes place on stages, he'll just let it all hang out. Bare walls are the order of the day, with false prosceniums and other odd bits of scenery dropped in or pushed on courtesy of set designer Anthony Ward when other locales are called for. Mendes's notion might have been catchy a few decades back, but some version of the show-within-a-show idea has been around a good deal, recently -- stagehands milling about, actors functioning as stagehands, and so on. This sort of thing is currently on view at La Bohème, was just seen in My Life With Albertine, and was also a conceit of the Peters Annie Get Your Gun. So it's kinda stale, though the Jules Fisher-Peggy Eisenhauer lighting design mitigates it somewhat in Gypsy as do Anthony Ward's costumes, the most memorable one being Electra's chaser-lights outfit.

Because the show itself is so sturdily crafted, it would take much more than Sam Mendes's surprising mistakes to undermine it. From the first notes of the magnificent overture that Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler fashioned through the rest of the now biting, now melodic score and with Jerome Robbins's choreography, here replicated with some alterations by Jerry Mitchell, there are abundant pluses. As Rose forces her daughters to live a life she never felt that her parents would allow her, there's poignant mother-daughter drama. There's the depiction of vaudeville's scruffier aspects -- and burlesque's. There is the Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne collaboration, which some musical theater historians would argue represents the lyricist's and the composer's most inspired work.

Individual scenes still have the ability to silence or rouse an audience, depending on what's transpiring. Some sequences -- like that first act finale, where Rose wails while Louise and Herbie quail, and that second act finale, where Rose finally shines the spotlight on herself -- have the ability both to silence and rouse. Once again: Here it is, boys! Here it is, world! Here's Gypsy!