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Gypsy in Her Soul

Matthew Murray reviews Broadway Angel's brand-new cast recording of the 2003 revival of Gypsy, starring Bernadette Peters. logo
Broadway Angel has just released the cast recording of the controversial 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy. The disc will appeal to die-hard fans of both the classic Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score and the show as a whole, one of the most visible and praised entries in the musical theater canon. While many people will want to own the CD for any number of reasons, chances are excellent that it will divide critics and audiences just as the production itself has done. The reason for this Grand Canyon-sized divide can be summed up in two words: Bernadette Peters.

Peters is one of the few current musical theater stars who are truly capable of driving ticket sales, and this makes her a highly sought-after commodity. With her consummate acting ability, her unique way with a song, and her kewpie-doll seductiveness, she's capable of imbuing every character she plays with a spirit that could be replicated by no one else. In a way, this made her a natural for the revival; it was the show's librettist, Arthur Laurents, who saw in Peters the opportunity for a Mama Rose that no one had seen before. But even before the production began rehearsals, let alone performances, many people were saying that Peters was miscast in the role.

Well, love her or hate her -- here she is, world! To get the full effect of this Sam Mendes-directed production, of course, you'll have to head to the Shubert Theatre, where the show is likely to be ensconced for a while. But you can get an excellent idea of what Peters brings to the musical theater equivalent of Medea by listening to the recording. Her work is likely to be well received by anyone who doesn't go in expecting a performance similar to the role's originator, Ethel Merman. Peters can't trumpet the songs or the lines in the same way (who can?), so she wisely doesn't try. Her Rose is younger, quieter, more of an everywoman thrust into some extraordinary professional and emotional circumstances.

Her "Some People" is one of the most varied and determined yet recorded, her rendering of the key "I had a dream" section convincing in a way that many others are not. Turning on a dime, Peters finds both the quiet need and razor-edged cunning of a woman who knows how to use her assets to get what she wants in the lovely ballads "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me." She waxes exultant in "Mr. Goldstone," encourages in "Together, Wherever We Go," and captures the dramatic essence of heartbreak in a reprise of "Small World."

Peters rises to the challenge of the score's two most titanic numbers. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is hard-driving, yet Peters's Rose doesn't cover up the heartbreak with volume; her feelings of betrayal and her frantic desire to be a part of something bigger than herself come through. And in the historic 11 o'clock number "Rose's Turn," Peters gives a thoroughly heartbreaking portrayal of the character's emotional breakdown, painting every moment with vibrant colors. Now she's confident, now she's lost, now she's defiant -- Peters runs the complete gamut of feelings. Has any other Rose sounded or felt the way this one does?

That's one of the three major benefits of this recording: the fact that it preserves for posterity evidence that Rose can be played in any number of valid ways. The other two are John Dossett's solid, effortlessly sung Herbie and the inclusion of a number of tracks of material not captured on other recordings; among these are the entr'acte, the "Madame Rose's Toreadorables" sequence that kicks off the second act, and the touching final scene between Rose and the daughter she's pushed to stardom as Gypsy Rose Lee, stripper par excellence.

On a basic level, the disc has everything it needs to have and does everything it needs to do. Conducted by musical director Marvin Laird, the orchestra sounds top-notch; every number, including the classic overture, is played with tremendous verve and theater-level excitement. (The production's reduced instrumentation has been wisely beefed-up with eight additional musicians for the recording. One can't help but wish that the same thing had been done for the lackluster revival cast album of Nine.) In terms of sound quality, the disc is practically flawless. And Laurents has provided some enlightening notes for the accompanying booklet, which also includes the lyrics to all of the songs on the CD.

Still, for all of its virtues, the disc can't be considered definitive. (The Merman album fits that bill.) David Burtka's Tulsa is neither the best sung nor the most energetic on record, so his "All I Need Is the Girl" is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The voice of Kate Reinders (Dainty June) seems thinner and more tentative on the recording than in the theater. The showstopping "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" sounds great but, divorced of its staging, is more or less like every other recording of the song. And the show's third lead, Tammy Blanchard, comes off particularly poorly as the future Gypsy Rose Lee; though she offers a sensitive rendition of the lovely "Little Lamb," her performance generally lacks wit, charm, and surprise. Her climactic, transformative strip number displays little of the personality or sultriness that was exhibited even by the original Broadway Gypsy, the widely excoriated Sandra Church.

Nevertheless, this is one of the rare cast albums that capture the spirit of a theater production almost perfectly. If you liked the Bernadette Peters-Sam Mendes Gypsy at the Shubert, you're sure to love the recording; and if you found the revival wanting, it's unlikely that the CD will change your mind. Whether or not you find yourself in Peters's camp, the disc is an often surprising and enjoyable way to revisit a classic show about which, obviously, there is still a great deal to say.

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