Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, and Boyd Gaines in Gypsy
(© Joan Marcus)
Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, and Boyd Gaines in Gypsy
(© Joan Marcus)
There's a moment in the stupendous Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy when stage mother Rose says to worried daughter Louise that if you give audiences a big finish, they'll forgive anything that preceded it. Well, Patti LuPone -- currently triumphing as Rose in the splendid new Encores! Summer Stars series production of the tuner -- not only plays Mama Rose to a fare-thee-well but turns Mama Rose's big-finish comment into a credo. In a performance that will have musical comedy fanatics buzzing for months to come, LuPone executes a finish to end all finishes.

I'm not talking here about her rendition of the celebrated "Rose's Turn"--the last few measures of which she blares with such power that you wonder how she'll ever summon up the energy again. Instead, I'm talking about the bows she takes at the end of the dazzling soliloquy, when the actual audience is on its feet and she behaves as if she's curtseying distractedly before an imagined audience. I'm also talking about the mother-daughter confrontation that follows during which LuPone acts the dickens out of Rose finally recognizing how in her determination to make both daughters stars she lost sight of the maternal attention they needed.

Not that LuPone's monumental finish comes out of a need to recover lost ground. In those final minutes, the always fervent actor caps off her finest performing hours in a Manhattan theater. She doesn't hit any false notes as bull-headed Rose tries anything she can to make Baby June (Sami Gayle) and young Louise (Emma Rowley) headliners in vaudeville As the show progresses through the Depression, LuPone continues to be a now sympathetic, now monstrous Rose while the older Louise (Laura Benanti) and teenaged June (Leigh Ann Larkin) bridle more openly about their treatment. Eventually, lover Herbie (Boyd Gaines) loses patience being a buffer between both sides.

Singing the glittering and dynamic solos numbers that Styne and Sondheim supplied for Rose, LuPone hits no false literal notes either. Curiously, though, were you looking to find flaws in her characterization, you'd find them in LuPone's approach to some of her numbers. There was a time when the plush-sounding songbird caressed vowels as if they were silk sheets and treated consonants in the same off-handed manner Rose sometimes treats Louise. That's changed now that she's doing her fourth Sondheim tuner in recent years and knows she's courting trouble if she doesn't enunciate with utmost care. Nevertheless, she sometimes slips into styling songs as if she were on a nightclub floor. For instance, in "Everything's Coming Up Roses," she overenunciates the word "roses" as "ros-as." How fancy it sounds coming from a figure who's anything but hifalutin.

But if that's the way she wants it in this superlative turn, more power to her -- and to Laurents, who has directed the outing. He has surrounded LuPone with a cast encouraged to be equally outstanding, beginning with Gayle's Baby June and her hilarious "Let Me Entertain You" squeal. Larkin as the mature June is also funny as a dimple on two well-turned legs and is just as good when declaring how much she hates the corny routines Rose hands her. Tony Yazbek as Tulsa, the troupe member who runs off with June after singing "All I Need is the Girl," is appealingly nimble, while everyone in the ensemble is expert at the sparklingly satirical Jerome Robbins choreography, as faithfully reproduced by Bonnie Walker.

Among the guaranteed scene thieves in any Gypsy are the gals who get to bump-and-grind the great comic number "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." This time, as the strippers Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra respectively, Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel and, Marilyn Caskey prove they've got the gimmicks.

As for Boyd Gaines as the good-hearted Herbie, he gives a lovely acting and singing account of a man who is weak only because, out of the depth of his love, he has miscalculated how to be strong for others.

Last but no means least is Benanti as the untalented girl who becomes legendary ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee. Hers is the character who changes the most, and the initially cowering and then-confident Benanti wrings every nuance from the change. For many who expect LuPone's portrayal to be no less than it is, Benanti will be the revelation. Plus, she's a humdinger in the craftily zippered gowns Martin Pakledinaz has run up for the burlesque-house runways.

Throughout Gypsy, Rose repeatedly sings, "I had a dream." With this production, the creators' dream of chutzpah chastised and rewarded has once again come gloriously true.