NEW YORK — Rose, they say in "Gypsy," is a pioneer woman without a frontier. And while the manicured Illinois lawns of the Ravinia Festival don't exactly call to mind covered wagons, that verdant Midwestern venue still seeded a primal Broadway performance now delivered on the Great White Way with incomparable courage, passion and guts.
If, like me, you favor the Mother Courage school of Roses — as distinct from the nuanced stylings of a glamorously self-aware diva — then Patti LuPone is most assuredly your mama.
LuPone first performed as the character Rose at Ravinia in August 2006 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra behind her and enraptured fans in front of her. That was supposed to be a concert staging — but it seemed as if nobody told the director, Lonny Price, who (despite just a few days of rehearsal) delivered pretty much a full production replete with set, lights, costumes and a respectable homage to the original Jerome Robbins choreography.
Price got pushed aside for New York, but LuPone's huge success in the role at Ravinia was enough to persuade the show's numerous Gotham gatekeepers to let her have her shot in the biggest burlesque market of all — first as part of the City Center's Encores Series and, on Thursday night, to star in a new Broadway revival of "Gypsy" directed by the veteran Arthur Laurents, who literally wrote the 1959 book.
This is a revival almost on top of another revival — Sam Mendes directed Bernadette Peters in the role in the 2003-04 season. It wasn't so much that Broadway was clamoring for another revival of "Gypsy," the show. This one is all about giving LuPone her much-deserved turn.
But perhaps the biggest surprise Thursday night at the St. James was how little either LuPone or, indeed, "Gypsy" had changed since Ravinia. The Laurents production really couldn't be more different from the Mendes, which was a genuinely revisionist take on the show by a British director with great interest in the social context of the material. This new, remarkably old-fashioned version could easily have opened in 1959 (it feels very much like a reclaiming of "Gypsy" by the original creative team). Of course, they would not have put the orchestra on the stage in 1959 — but we're now more open to the notion that such a great American musical composition (by Jule Styne) deserves to be liberated from the pit. And when you've got the orchestra there, you don't have to fill the space with a set.
The design elements in Laurents' show — which is on the lower end of a full production just as Price's Ravinia version was on the upper end of a concert staging — are undistinguished. And you look mostly in vain for a new directorial idea — beyond, of course, LuPone. Laura Benanti's Louise makes a case for attention — it comes with an uncommonly deep well of demonstrable loneliness. But Boyd Gaines' Herbie, although solidly acted, seems like a study in many shades of gray, rather than a slow, painful journey toward understanding that this bloody woman is completely impossible. And although they're traditionally solid performers, the kids in the company seem a tad too old — you get the sense that the girl that Tulsa needs won't be his first.
LuPone carries showAnd that leaves LuPone with the whole show on her back. Ever since she first opened her mouth as Rose in 2006, people have been picking apart almost every aspect of her turn. The impassioned analysis on the ubiquitous Broadway gossip boards has reached an almost laughable level of detail. Such, one supposes, is the widespread affection for this show and this role.
But I say she carries the burden gloriously. LuPone sets her jaw and plants her feet wide apart on the stage of the St. James Theatre, as if to declare that show business is not just old-fashioned graft and toil but a matter of life and death. She is both more vulnerable and a far more personal communicator than many of her fellow divas — her Rose has both the primal howl the character demands and also the genuine affection of a mother — OK, a twisted mother — for her spawn. LuPone shows us a woman struggling against a world that won't let her in — and yet her voice also travels up an arpeggio with the kind of layered beauty that almost pulls you from the seat. Her huge belts got the biggest ovations, but she also stands in front of a curtain and tears out her insides.
And what else is there, really, to a "Gypsy"?
'Sunday in the Park'Nobody tears anything in the very cerebral and brilliantly conceived revival of "Sunday in the Park With George" that has arrived on Broadway this spring by way of London. "Sunday in the Park" shares a lyricist (Stephen Sondheim, of course) with "Gypsy." But the two productions could not be more different in approach. If Laurents is going back to the show's roots, Sam Bunt- rock's new production of "Sunday in the Park" (first produced some 25 years ago) is like a meditation on musicals in the digital age. It is rather like watching a play about the creation of a painting taking place inside that very painting.
Broadway has been burned by such technology before — the hyper-realistic digitized journeys offered up in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Woman in White" induced not so much a deeper aesthetic experience as the kind of nausea you get on roller coasters. But the various designers involved in "Sunday" understood that restraint is the first theatrical requirement of someone with a hand on a mouse.
Moreover, "Sunday" is fundamentally about the neuroses of the artistic process —from the blank canvas to the politics of getting attention to the pain of the final critical judgment, typically rendered by a boob. This remarkable production not only explores the lives and times of those who modeled for Georges Seurat as he painted "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884" (which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago), but it also takes you inside, outside and even through the painters' canvas.
In terms of traditional musical values and staging, the show has its limitations, although it has two fine leads.
Evoking the sweat of a model and the fragility of a sensual woman, Jenna Russell's Dot is an entirely new take on the role. Daniel Evans' George is more in the standard palette in the first act. But after intermission, he taps perfectly into the artist's terror of both the old (which means repetition) and the new (which means a blank canvas).
You see images appear, get rubbed out, move around. Seurat was famous for his interest in color theory — and you could make a good case that Sondheim and his book writer James Lapine were actually creating an insouciant theatrical counterpoint to Seurat's experiments in using placement and color to trick the mind into seeing a personally harmonious whole. In other words, it feels as if you've never fully understood this show until now. And what else is there, really, to a "Sunday in the Park"?
"Gypsy" plays on Broadway at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit tele charge.com. "Sunday in the Park With George" plays at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Call 212-719.1300 or visit round abouttheatre.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times