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‘Gypsy,’ Opening Tonight, Isn’t the Same Old Bump and Grind

Arthur Laurents wanted to clear up some misconceptions about the “Gypsy” that opens tonight with Tyne Daly for a two-week run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

While it is true that the original production with Ethel Merman appeared on Broadway 30 years ago, he said, please forget all the hype about this production being a 30th-anniversary revival. He maintained that it is not, strictly speaking, a revival.

“It’s a great mistake using that word,” said Laurents, 71, who wrote the show (Jule Styne composed the music and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics). “I think if you’re reviving it, I don’t want to see it.”

And if he wouldn’t want to see a faithful reproduction of a 30-year-old musical, why should anybody else? “ Something must have happened between the ‘50s and the ‘80s to give us a different take on ‘Gypsy,’ ” he argued.

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The fact is that this production, which Laurents also directs, differs considerably from the original and from the 1973 London revival with Angela Lansbury that made it to Broadway as well.

For one thing, he said, he has completely rewritten the beginning, the ending and a lot of the middle. For another, he has made it much grittier, more realistic and truer to his initial conception, which was deemed too harsh for a musical in the ‘50s and had to be sweetened.

Laurents, speaking from his home in the Hamptons on the eastern tip of Long Island, explained: “Back then, they were so timid that even with the sugar-coating, ‘Gypsy’ was considered a very unpleasant, tough show because Mama Rose was not a conventional stage heroine. They thought it would be more palatable if it had a happy ending, so Rose and Gypsy (her daughter) went off arm in arm, just like all happy mothers and daughters.

“Well, this time Gypsy blasts her mother to hell in the last scene. She softens a little, but she is ice to her mother. They’re not gurgling at each other the way they did in the original--and with good reason. Today, we are very aware of abused children. Gypsy was an abused child, and she had an abusive mother.”

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Another major difference has to do with the casting. In the original, said Laurents, there was no emotional or sexual relationship between Mama Rose and Herbie, the tireless agent who travels the vaudeville circuit with her as she shepherds her children from town to dreary town.

“The reason for that was Ethel Merman,” he recounted. “She was a wonderful performer, but not really a first-rate actress. And she was curiously without sex. She had a buddy relationship with Jack Klugman, who was wonderful as Herbie. But the relationship was played flat. You never felt those two people went to bed.

“In the ’74 production, God knows, Angela Lansbury was a superb actress. But she was playing opposite an actor with whom she had no chemistry. It was Rex Robbins, who is a very good actor. Only there was just nothing going on sexually. And once again, what you saw was a convenience, not a relationship.”

With Daly and Jonathan Hadary in this “Gypsy,” there is no mistaking the feeling between Mama Rose and Herbie. Nor is there any doubt about the reason for their inevitable breakup, which seems both poignant and bitter. (“That scene was such a soap opera in the original,” Laurents recalled, “that he kissed her on the head as he left.”)

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As for character development in the Broadway versions, there simply was none. Daly’s Mama Rose has more depth as well as fullness. “She brings vulnerability to the role,” Laurents said. “No matter how tough she gets, you know she aches inside. I think that’s a quality she simply has as an actress. She also gets more rapacious as the show goes on. The other two didn’t. They started out at full bore and stayed that way all the way through.”

Gypsy herself (Crista Moore) is also closer to the real Gypsy Rose Lee, who became the striptease queen of America. When Moore finally gets to do her famous act, her jaw does more jiggling than her body. In the Broadway versions, Gypsy hardly opened her mouth, said Laurents, who also wrote the libretto for “West Side Story” and screenplays for “The Way We Were” and “The Turning Point.”

“Everybody thinks Gypsy was a sizzling sexpot,” he said. “Well, she wasn’t at all. She literally talked her way through her strips. She did not have a very good body. And she never showed it. She was flat-chested, as a matter of fact. By talking, she made those men in their raincoats think they were seeing class.”

Then, of course, there are the other strippers--Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura--the ones who sing “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” In the previous productions, they were always played as young women, not ingenues exactly, but close. “It made you wonder why they needed a gimmick,” Laurents said.

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The three strippers in this “Gypsy” are, shall we say, more mature and certainly earthier. They play their acts for laughs. Each of their “gimmicks” serve as the equivalent of a punch line in a joke.

One thing Laurents emphasizes about this or any production: If the director doesn’t keep a sharp eye on the show, it tends to drift. That is why he rehearsed the cast in Minneapolis just before “Gypsy” arrived in Los Angeles a few weeks ago and why he will rehearse it again in Houston just after it leaves Orange County.

“Very few actors are not infected by what I call the actor’s syndrome,” he said. “They want to be liked by the audience, and they think that playing sweet and soft and ‘nice’ makes them likable. Well, in ‘Gypsy’ it makes them wimps.”

“Gypsy” runs through July 29 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and July 24 through 28; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and July 29; 1 and 8 p.m. July 27. Tickets: $19 to $40. Information: (714) 556-2787.

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