Kevin Sessums | New York | News | Review | Theatre

On the Stage: Gypsy, The Four of Us, The Drunken City


GuestbloggerKevin Sessums last reviewed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Adding Machine, and Parlour Song for Towleroad. You can also catch up with Kevin online at his own blog at

Okay. Let’s get the adjectives out of the way. Stunning. Amazing. Legendary. Mermanesque.

Gypsy2Yep. I’m describing Patti LuPone’s performance as Mama Rose in Arthur Laurents’ latest production of Gypsy, which is arguably the greatest American musical ever written. Its book is by Laurents. Its score is by Jule Styne, who wrote the music when the show’s lyricist, a 29-year-old Stephen Sondheim, was considered a bit too green to be trusted to take on the duties of composer by the show’s star, Ethel Merman, when its original choreographer and director, Jerome Robbins, had offered him both roles after Cole Porter and Irving Berlin turned Robbins down. Miffed, Sondheim had decided not to do the lyrics alone until his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, convinced him how important his contribution would be to the show. Some even insist the lyrics are the best that Sondheim has ever written. Laurents, who will be 90 in July, directed an earlier version of this production this past summer as part of City Center’s Encore series and, deepening it on many levels (especially LuPone’s performance), has now moved it to the St. James Theatre on Broadway.

Gypsy3I say Gypsy is arguably the greatest American musical because when it first opened in 1959 at the Broadway Theatre it was slighted by audiences and some critics and most awards ceremonies. Indeed, the original production did not win a single Tony award. It lost the Best Musical Tony in 1960 to both The Sound of Music and Fiorello!, which tied for the honor. Other nominees were Take Me Along and Once Upon a Mattress. Mary Martin as Maria in The Sound of Music beat Ethel Merman as Best Actress in a Musical. George Abbott won Best Director in the Musical category for Fiorello!, besting Robbins. Robbins wasn’t even nominated as Best Choreographer; the winner in that category was Michael Kidd for Destry Rides Again. For you trivia buffs: John Kander of Kander and Ebb was the rehearsal pianist for the original production and helped arrange the music for the dance numbers for which Robbins failed to be nominated.

Gypsy4An older downstairs neighbor of mine remembered his high school days in Brooklyn when I told him I’d just seen this latest production of Gypsy and we began to reminisce about all the previous ones we’d each seen. One of the first Broadway productions I ever saw when I first moved to Manhattan in 1974 was a production starring Angela Lansbury, which was also directed by Laurents. I also saw Tyne Daly in the role. (Both Lansbury and Daly did win the Tony for their portrayals.) I saw Linda Lavin. And Bernadette Peters. I even saw Peters' understudy, Maureen Moore, who made her Broadway debut as Dainty June in that 1974 Lansbury production at the Winter Garden. Peters herself played Baby June in a touring production of the show in which Merman starred when the initial Broadway production closed after 704 performances at the Imperial Theatre where it had moved after its opening at the Broadway. I missed Betty Buckley’s acclaimed performance at the Paper Mill Playhouse a couple of years ago. And I wish I had missed Bette Midler’s terribly over-the-top television take on the role. I kept wishing I had a back row balcony seat in my living room the whole time I watched her since that was how she was pitching the part.

"Honey, I saw Merman do it about ten times," my downstairs neighbor said. "All the faggy high school boys around the city like me back then would cut class on Wednesday afternoons and converge on the Imperial Theatre and second act Gypsy so we could watch Merman do ‘Rose’s Turn.’ People in New York back then didn’t like that show. It was too hard and cynical for them. But when you’re a gay-boy-aborning you eat that stuff up. There were a lot of first dates being made up in the balcony of the Imperial during the second act of Wednesday matinees of Gypsy in 1959 and 1960. The place was teeming with teenage gay boys playing hooky."

Gypsy5Gay boys of this generation don’t have to skip school to furtively make dates during Gypsy, but they would still be remiss if they don’t catch LuPone, this generation’s Merman, giving a performance that we’ll all be talking about to our own younger neighbors in years to come. Frank Rich, in his old job as theater critic at the New York Times, has compared Mama Rose to King Lear and LuPone is downright Shakespearean in the dramatic shadings she brings to her rendition of ‘Rose’s Turn,’ the noted, literally so, climactic nervous breakdown of the show’s second act. Laurents has reined in LuPone earlier in the show so she has someplace to go emotionally in the role and it pays off brilliantly. This is the most fully acted Mama Rose I’ve ever seen. LuPone still swoops up on many of her high notes and is the only singer I know who can slur a consonant, but the performance is otherwise so carefully calibrated her vocal idiosyncrasies seem to be created anew for Mama Rose herself.

Boyd Gaines, as Herbie, Rose’s love interest, is the first fully realized Herbie I’ve seen as well. For the first time you believe that the relationship the two are having is as carnal as it is caring and symbiotic. And Laura Benanti, who matures beautifully and hauntingly, into stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the memoirist on whom the musical is based, measures up to Gaines and LuPone. These are three of the best musical performances I’ve seen in a very long time.

The show’s original title is Gypsy: A Musical Fable. This production — perhaps theatre great Arthur Laurents’s valedictory one — is destined to be a fabled one. Do not miss it.

T T T T (out of 4 possible T's)

Gypsy, The St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

Fourofus207***THE FOUR OF US

I recently attended the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival down in New Orleans to appear on a couple of panels. I sat in the audience for several others, including one with playwright Terrence McNally who blamed the expense of real estate in New York for the dearth of young playwrights now in the city. Yet, rents be damned, some still are able to make their way here. Two recent plays are by two rather prolific young writers who haven’t been scooped up by Hollywood.

Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

Fourofus159In fact, The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of The Four of Us by Itamar Moses, the more accomplished of the two plays, is about what happens to two close friends when one’s book is bought for two million dollars and made into a movie while the other continues to struggle as a playwright. It is a lovely two-hander beautifully acted by Gideon Banner, as the more financially successful of the two, and Michael Esper. It takes on a rather Pirandello-like quality toward the end of the intermissionless evening that proves Moses is as clever as his characters are. He is certainly as talented as he leads us to believe each of them is. Pam MacKinnon is the play’s ingenious director who has elicited the affectingly naturalistic performances from her two actors to counterbalance the direction’s and the play’s ingeniousness. It’s well worth the visit.

T T 1/2 (out of 4 possible T's)

The Four of Us, Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York. Ticket information here.


DrunkenThe other play is The Drunken City by Adam Bock at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Sharp Theatre on 42nd Street. It concerns a girls-night-out in order to celebrate an upcoming marriage of one of them and what transpires when Manhattan — a monstrously beguiling place, according to Bock, with the emphasis on the monstrous — sinks its teeth into them. There is real heart in the sitcom body of the play, most of it found in the performance of Cassie Beck as Melissa, the betrothed, and Alfredo Narcisco, who plays Bob, the gay ex-marine baker for whom the young women work. Bob’s interest in Eddie, portrayed by Barrett Foa, who was so good in Avenue Q, is the true romantic spark that flickers on the edges of the play until it ignites in a long kiss between the two at the play’s end that seems to signal the deep need that all the characters have for a true connection. A sweet play sweetly directed by Trip Cullman. But a slight one.

T 1/2 (out of 4 possible T's)

The Drunken City, Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street
New York. Ticket information here.

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  1. You must have caught Gypsy on a good night. Saw Gypsy on 4/8/08, 3rd row center, but found the production dis-jointed, the characters unbelievable, and the singing second-rate. They all just seemed to be trying SO hard to perform. Perhaps they haven't hit their stride yet. Having great expectations and a "can't wait to see it" attitude, we were completely let down!

    Posted by: Darren | Apr 10, 2008 12:00:24 PM

  2. A friend got me tix for opening night 3/27..Patti was brilliant I thought. Didn't love Laura Benati, think she was a little too old for Louise, anyways great review. Looking forward to getting my Equus tix, Danny Radcliffe..HOT!!!

    Posted by: daveynyc | Apr 10, 2008 12:13:20 PM

  3. DAVENYC is right -- the gay boys of THIS generation will NOT be flocking to see a cynical middle aged woman from the balcony -- homo-fandom having come of age, they will be unabashedly having their "first dates" front and center at EQUUS and ogling Daniel Radcliffe. Luckily, it's a great play, so they may indeed also take away 2 a pearl or theatre-love. However, Lupone is for ALL theatre-lovers of any age (although DARREN, "great expectations and a can't wait to see it attitude" almost guarantee a let-down, no? Better to keep your expectations low, they are more easily surpassed that way...)

    Posted by: Strepsi | Apr 10, 2008 12:24:29 PM

  4. Calling La LuPone "Mermanesque" is doing her a great disservice. Merman couldn't act her way out of a wet crisper while LuPone reveals new layers in Rose. She acts the role brilliantly and sings the hell out of the songs. I had reservations about Bananti, whom I fond strident and the production itself, which is a bit underproduced.

    Posted by: Sean | Apr 10, 2008 12:39:49 PM

  5. Gypsy is the greatest American musical because audiences and critics slighted it when it first appeared? What's the sense in that?

    Posted by: David | Apr 10, 2008 12:51:19 PM

  6. David- he said "arguably." He's noting the cold shoulders given by the audiences and critics of 1959 to demonstrate the arguable part.

    Posted by: Jeff | Apr 10, 2008 1:20:38 PM

  7. Keith: Great review, thank you! It was indeed an unbelievable performance and I'd go again. Your 'slur' line had me laughing out loud, but then on second read I thought: didn't you mean 'slur a VOWEL'??? A consonant is what we all (well, shometimes) slur.

    Posted by: Todd | Apr 10, 2008 2:32:36 PM

  8. i'm so excited for gypsy.

    Posted by: ian | Apr 10, 2008 2:43:28 PM

  9. ooooooooo sean honey, those are fightin' words when you say la merm can't ... honey she is queen momma ... no, no, no ... you didn't say that, 'cause honey i'm gonna slap you with my purse... call me madam because there's no business like show business and you'd better believe it!

    Posted by: the queen | Apr 10, 2008 2:51:28 PM

  10. Thanks, Kevin. Patti-haters are like Hillary-haters: their bile knows no bounds and has no logic. Say what you want about her larger-than-life quality, this production and her performance are historic. Miss them at your peril.

    Posted by: JeffNYC | Apr 10, 2008 4:08:06 PM

  11. Like Lupone a lot, and believe the raves about the acting, but, sorry, can't imagine she expanded her near dial-tone-narrow vocal range to actually SING "Rose's Turn." Smacks a great deal of the "Late Callas Standard, i.e., she can no longer hit the notes, but she acted the hell out of it so proceed to Melt."

    Youngin's might be amused to know that the real Rose was a lesbian who allegedly murdered her own lover for making a pass at Gypsy.

    Anyway, looking forward to your review of "South Pacific" revival.

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | Apr 10, 2008 5:28:18 PM

  12. Michael/Leland, What are you talking about? Lupone had and still has an incredible range. Not only can she hit the notes, she can belt throughout her entire range. Very few singers can do that.

    I am thankful that Laurents finally relented and let La Lupone play Mama Rose on Broadway. She acted and sang the hell out of that role. It is all too apparent, however, that Laurents is 90 years old. The production itself is creaky. I preferred the Bernadette Peters production (and even that with Tyne Daly). Boyd is the best Herbie I have ever seen, but Berlanti is the weakest Louise/Gypsy. All told, an electrifying night at The Theatre. Any gay man who has the opportunity to see this show and misses it should be required to turn in his family membership card.

    Posted by: rudy | Apr 10, 2008 6:11:51 PM

  13. Darren, you can have Danny Radcliffe in Equus. I saw Randy Harrison in the role.

    Posted by: Dick | Apr 10, 2008 6:27:38 PM

  14. I love your reviews, Kevin. I'm not a musicals queen in the slightest --give me Strauss and Wagner any day-- but you described it so well. I love your neighbor's reminiscing about dates in the balcony.

    I can't wait for Equus with Daniel Radcliffe to show up in NYC and watch people complain how small his cock is. It *will* happen (I saw the show with him in London). :-) Great play, very very powerful.

    Smacks a great deal of the "Late Callas Standard, i.e., she can no longer hit the notes, but she acted the hell out of it so proceed to Melt."

    Hahaha, as an opera queen, I know that 'tude well. "Sure, sure, the voice is sour, yeah, there's a wobble you can drive a truck through and sure, the high notes are like getting jabbed in the ear with an ice pick, but mio dio! the way she sings the word 'Ciel!' is to die for!".

    Any gay man who has the opportunity to see this show and misses it should be required to turn in his family membership card.

    Phew! I'm 3,000 miles away, that's good you put "opportunity" because I like my family membership card. :-)

    Posted by: Henry Holland | Apr 10, 2008 6:37:59 PM

  15. Why doesn't HTML coding work on this damn comments section? Why, when I hit preview, does it only show a black screen? (I'm using Firefox)?

    Posted by: Henry Holland | Apr 10, 2008 6:41:59 PM

  16. Judgeth for thyselves. I was shocked when, after writing my above post, I discovered these bootlegs which, while the singing was as essentially monotonic as I expected, the overall performance suggests she's a graduate of the "Rosie O'Donnell Huff & Puff & Blow the House Down School of Acting." Is this "Gypsy" or "Medea, The Musical? The final Big Note has clearly been transposed down for her and she still goes from swoop to gargle.

    Laurents has often dissed Merman saying she didn't have the brains or emotion to "get" the part. But that's "the book," and hats off to Lupone if she does. But it's a musical first and a play second. Couldn't find clips of Merman doing it but this ancient duet with Mary Martin immediately demonstrates what her trumpet voice did with the songs for those unfamiliar with it. Lupone is more a trombone. They need love, too.

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | Apr 10, 2008 8:22:18 PM

  17. Saw it on Sunday. The stage manager announced that Ms. LuPone was feeling under the weather... and the entire audience, 95% gay men, gasped at the same time. Hilarious. She did the show, though, and was still AMAZING.

    However, I still think the show is AWFUL. It's a horribly constructed story--it is hard to care about anyone in the show. I only cared for Mama Rose this time because it was Patti. She was worth the price of the ticket and then some, so I'm glad I saw it...but..I just wish I could enjoy the show.

    I guess it was a great production of an awful musical.

    Posted by: David | Apr 10, 2008 8:28:58 PM

  18. we saw the Lapone production last Night 4-10-08(and Patti either had allergies or a cold because she was nasal but STILL hit all the notes)...I also saw the Bernadette Peters production..I fuckin' hated her in that role but the last time I saw Patti I hated what they did to Sweeny Todd but I will go because Patti is one of the last divas of the stage...talking about not hitting a note, that was the nite with Ms peters doing her Gypsy...but that production was alot more glitzy than this one...but on the other hand I like seeing the real "seediness" of vaudeville which is in the Patti production...even the women they cast to do the number "You gotta have a gimmick"...were way "over the hill"...and it worked for me because that was the way it was supposed to be ...they had come to the end of their careers:-)...I give the entire show 7.5 out of 10 TC STARS!!

    Posted by: tc | Apr 11, 2008 12:31:35 PM

  19. I have to agree with TC, I was part of the we who saw it last night with him. I've been a fan of LuPone since Evita. Those who say she can't sing? To each there own. I missed Peters because I can't stand her voice, chalk on blackboard.

    What struck me about last night was that the setting fit the true story, which is why I love the play. When Gypsy walks away smiling, I've never seen that done before, it is exactly what she did in real life. You are right Michael Bedwell, her mother was a closet case who ran a lesbian boarding house here on the Upper West Side. Which along with a farm upstate were rented for by Gypsy and her sister actress June Havoc. On her death bed Rose put a curse on Gypsy.

    Mother Rose was dying of colon cancer, her final words, in 1954, were for Gypsy Lee: "Wherever you go... I'll be right there. When you get your own private kick in the ass, just remember: it's a present from me to you."

    After she died Rose wrote Gypsy and June did not speak to her because of how she was portrayed, until a decade later when Gypsy was dying of cancer. She told June before her death. "This is my present, you know", she reportedly said. "My present from Mother". June, 94, is still alive.

    Posted by: patrick nyc | Apr 11, 2008 8:50:19 PM

  20. I have yet to see the current Broadway production of GYPSY and hope to get to NYC to see it this summer. I did see Angela Lansbury in it at the MUNY in St. Louis when they toured between the London production and the Broadway opening. I thought she was great in the role. I remember a quote from a review of Lansbury's Mama Rose: "Merman was louder, but Lansbury is better!"

    Posted by: Bob | Apr 12, 2008 10:24:05 PM

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