There’s a moment in the stupendous Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy, when stage mother Rose tells daughter Louise that if you give the audiences a big finish, they’ll forgive anything preceding it. Well, Patti LuPone — currently triumphing as Rose in the splendid revival at the St. James — turns that observation into an astonishing performing credo.
In a performance that’ll have musical comedy fanatics buzzing for months, LuPone executes a show-biz finish to end all finishes. And — get this! — it’s even been heightened by the 89-year-old Laurents, now the show’s director, since it was presented as part of City Center Encores! Summer Stars series last year. If this brilliantly jarring fade-out doesn’t cop LuPone her second Tony Award, we can assume there’s truly little justice left in the world.
I’m not talking solely about LuPone’s rendition of the celebrated “Rose’s Turn” — the last few measures of which she blares with such power that you wonder how she’ll summon the energy again. I’m talking about the additional turns she takes at the end of the soliloquy, when the actual audience is on its feet and she behaves as if she’s curtsying distractedly before an imagined audience. I’m also talking about the mother-daughter confrontation that follows. LuPone acts the dickens out of Rose recognizing how in her determination to make both daughters stars she lost sight of the maternal attention they needed.
As bull-headed Rose tries anything she can to make her youngest daughter June (Katie Micha, then Leigh Anne Larkin) and older sister Louise (Emma Rowley, then Laura Benanti) into vaudeville headliners, LuPone hits no false notes as the now -sympathetic, now-monstrous Rose. LuPone hits no false melodic notes either. There was a time when the plush-sounding songbird caressed vowels as if they were silk sheets but treated consonants in the off-handed manner that Rose treats Louise, but no more. Furthermore, whereas at City Center, she sometimes delivered numbers as if she were on a nightclub floor, she now gives herself over entirely to Rose’s monomania.
Laurents, who knows what he wants from a property that debuted 49 years ago this spring, has surrounded his star with a cast encouraged to be equally outstanding, starting with Benanti as the untalented girl who becomes legendary, self-kidding ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee. Hers is the character who transforms 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 stunning than it is, Benanti’s work will be the production’s true revelation. Plus, she’s a humdinger in the craftily zippered gowns that wily costumer Martin Pakledinaz has run up for the burlesque-house runways.
The rest of the cast is equally first-rate. Boyd Gaines, as Rose’s loyal-until-he-breaks lover Herbie, gives a lovely acting and singing account of a man weak only because, out of the depth of his devotion, he miscalculates how to be strong for others. (He also gets to utter the marvelous line “Everybody in show business listens to anybody.)” Larkin, embodying the mature June, is cute as dimples on well-turned legs and then especially effective 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. Lenora Nemetz, Alison Fraser, and Marilyn Caskey prove they’ve got the gimmicks as the scene-stealing strippers, and everyone in the ensemble is expert at the sparklingly satirical Jerome Robbins choreography, which has been faithfully reproduced by Bonnie Walker.
Throughout Gypsy, Rose repeatedly sings, “I had a dream.” With this production, the creators’ dream of outrageous chutzpah chastised and rewarded once again comes gloriously true.