It is Rose’s turn, indeed. And not just during the closing song of the show, which happens to have that title. It is Rose’s turn the entire night at this production of Gypsy.
Currently playing at the St. James Theater, the latest revival of the famed musical is a heartfelt and heartbreaking production, starring Patti LuPone, who gives a no-holds-barred performance as Rose, the stage mother of the century.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy is the story of Rose and her two daughters who she forces into show business with motives that are unclear even to herself. June is the younger of the two, and the star of the shows, accompanied by her sister Louse who plays the supporting roles, regardless of gender or even species (at one point she happily dons the latter half of a cow to play animal to June’s farm girl dance number). Rose spoils and coddles June and frequently reminds Louise that she has no talent, a statement that Louise accepts all too easily.
The trio are joined by their agent Herbie (an excellent Boyd Gaines), who possesses an undying (and at times incomprehensible) devotion to Rose. She frequently promises him that they will marry as soon as the act is a success. However, with vaudeville acts quickly disappearing, that day proves to be very far away.
Rose’s ambitions, she claims, are for her daughter to be a success. She wants to give them fame and fortune, things that she herself never possessed. She clings steadfastly to her belief the act is good, even though that could easily be disputed. For these reasons, she drags her daughters across the country, searching for their big break. They have never gone to school. They do not even know their own age. For the past several birthdays, they have had only ten candles on their cakes.
It is Rose’s steadfast devotion to her daughters that makes her both a sympathetic and horrifying character, and this contradiction is accomplished to Patti LuPone, who gives a show-stopping, rafters-reaching performance. From her first line – the infamous “Sing out, Louise!” to her triumphant strut offstage at the end of the second act, LuPone gives Rose a new, vital, vibrant life that is almost frightening.
As her daughters, Dainty June and Louse, Leigh Ann Larkin and Laura Benanti give performances of undeniable strength and humor. Larkin gives June an unexpected depth and gravity (which comically juxtaposes the ruffled pinafore she is forced to wear the majority her time onstage), and, as Louise, Benanti gives a remarkably understated performance. Her unconditional love for her sister and mother, combined with her steadfast belief that she has no talent causes Louise to demurely perform whatever is asked of her. She is dutiful and obedient, even when terrified of what she has to do. Louise, unlike June and Rose, has no desire to succeed in show business. Instead, she longs for her mother to marry Herbie and for the family to settle down. Her wistful desire for a life of domestic simplicity is almost as unattainable as Rose’s longing to see June’s name in lights.
After June abandons the show to elope with a dancer, Rose quickly transfers her obsession onto Louise, forcing her into the spotlight. It is then that Louise undergoes a remarkable transformation from a meek and mild girl to an alluring exotic dancer. It is a challenging change to make in such a short period of time, but Benanti accomplishes it remarkably. Watching her daughter skyrocket to fame, Rose tries desperately to cling to her fame, but she fails miserably.
The rapport between Larkin and Benanti is affectionate (the daughter’s duet “Mama Get Married” is extremely entertaining), but it is the chemistry between LuPone and Benanti that truly establishes the show. Benanti’s Louise sees her mother for who she is, and she is determined to not become her. LuPone’s Rose, on the other hand, stubbornly refuses to ever stop hoping for the future – even when there isn’t much future to hope for.
The principals are joined onstage by a stellar supporting cast. There is not one performance that did not appear polished, accomplished and complete. One standout included a scene-stealing Lenora Nemetz as Miss Cratchitt, the secretary to Mr. Grantziger, and the trio of strippers (Alison Fraser, Lenora Nemetz and Marilyn Caskey), who kindly inform Louise, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” if you want to be a star.
After becoming a star, as current pop culture frequently reminds society, many lose grasp on reality. Rose, it appears, was ahead of the curve on that one. Countless times during the production, Rose’s utters or does something that questions her grasp on reality. June says at one point that her mother believes many things that are not true, but she convinces herself otherwise. This show questions, and beautifully so, how one can maintain a grasp on reality while struggling in show business – a business whose main ambition is to cause people to escape from reality. Rose never regains that grasp, a mistake that Louise is determined not to repeat herself.
Rose’s desperation comes to full fruition in her eleven o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn,” during which she laments about her own lack of accomplishments and fame and admits that she pushed her daughters for her own sake, not for theirs. Abandoned by June, Herbie, and now Louise, She would have been a star herself, she claims, if she had not been “born too soon and started too late.” Set on the stage adorned with faded scenery and tattered curtains, the song describes the cobwebs of dreams that Rose clings desperately to. Performed with a wild abandon by LuPone, the song invites the audience into the murky depths of Rose’s mind – a terrifying place that, after leaving, is difficult to forget.
“Some people ain’t me,” LuPone sings proudly at the beginning of the show. And that’s the truth. There’s no denying whose turn it is now.