In the movie “Pennies From Heaven,” considered harsh stuff even by some devotees of the great, harsh, superlatively durable musical “Gypsy,” Bernadette Peters plays a small-town schoolteacher seduced and abandoned by a sheet-music salesman. Screenwriter Dennis Potter’s hard-luck musical fable follows the teacher from wronged virgin to Chicago prostitute, tougher than the toughest kaiser roll in an Edward Hopper diner.
Potter relied on a familiar Madonna/whore archetype for his allegorical character, but Peters -- whose adorableness has always contained a rueful underside -- filled her with small amazements. Tough, delicate, emotionally direct and defiantly sensual, Peters’ best film performance is one you find yourself thinking back on while watching her engage in one of the most fascinating tussles of this Broadway season.
The smart but cautious new revival of “Gypsy,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, finds Peters in the role of Mama Rose -- desperately charming, a showbiz dictator in sheep’s clothing. Ethel Merman originated the part on Broadway in 1959. Like all great roles, there is more than one way to play it. Otherwise the role would be merely effective, not great.
Peters, now a supernaturally youthful 55, recently took on another Merman role in the “Annie Get Your Gun” revival. But this role in “Gypsy,” propelled by the peerless songs of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, is something else. It is Queen Lear, and in the show’s two killer spots, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” at the end of Act 1 and “Rose’s Turn” near the Act 2 close, Mama Rose transforms into something 1959 audiences hadn’t planned on, certainly not in a Merman show. She becomes crazed, her dreams of show business glory -- as lived through the strife-ridden eyes of her daughters -- galloping out of control.
This is what director Sam Mendes’ lean, efficient staging lacks: a sense of reckless abandon. Peters’ Rose rations that quality as well. It’s a very cagey performance on its own terms. Now, she just needs to get rid of the cage.
Contractually bound to the original (and gorgeous) Jerome Robbins choreography and reusing the original orchestrations, Mendes’ production has an air of the dutiful about it. It’s not ignoble work by any means: The director best known for his films “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” has an honest interest in finding the right balance of grit and glitz in librettist Arthur Laurents’ beautifully tooled fable of how stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was born and the stage mother behind her.
Late in the show, when everything has gone sour and the daughters’ act has dissolved along with vaudeville itself, someone complains of stomach trouble. “Everybody has stomach trouble but me,” Rose says. It’s a throwaway line, but in the case of Peters, it indicates an entire interpretive approach.
In 1989, when Tyne Daly delivered that line in the Laurents-directed Broadway revival, she gave it the full Merman blast. Peters mutters it under her breath. The line becomes touching rather than funny. It works. And yet, since so many of this fine singer-actress’ dramatic and comic choices go this direction, Rose ends up lifelike or slightly smaller, rather than larger than life.
Laurents has said that with Merman, Mama Rose had zero sex; with Peters, it’s all sex. In the burlesque house sequence, when Tessie Tura says that Rose would’ve made “a damn good stripper” in her day, for once, you believe it.
Yet other aspects of Peters’ arsenal are simply not ideal for the role. Her particular vocal timbre, hindered by somewhat mushy diction, doesn’t devastate, even in full-devastation mode. But in the charm songs (“Together,” “Small World”), which are as charming and purposeful as charm songs ever got, Peters captivates. And there’s some lovely contained menace in the scenes building up to the volcanic eruptions. In the Omaha train platform segment, when Rose says a bitter goodbye to one daughter before setting her sights on the other one -- the one who would become Gypsy -- you get the chills, and not just because it’s well-written.
Mendes has directed two of the best musical revivals in recent years: the Sondheim musical “Company” in London and, in London and New York, the intensely exciting revision of “Cabaret.” In “Cabaret,” he reassigned songs, reordered sequences, pulled material from the Bob Fosse film version, even delivered a Holocaust epilogue as a short, sharp shock.
“Gypsy,” being virtually perfect as is, doesn’t necessarily cry out for a conceptual makeover. Mendes has likened it to “Guys and Dolls” in its formal beauty and craftsmanship. All the same, why not a bold new “Gypsy”? Well, that would require new choreography, for starters, and perhaps the interpolation of a song or two cut in tryouts. Nothing doing here, not with Laurents on the watch, acting as custodian of his material, and of the show’s richly deserved reputation.
Mendes manages a few choice additions, though.
In the finale of “Rose’s Turn,” scenic designer Anthony Ward’s vision of Broadway is that of every theater marquee screaming out the same word: ROSE. Throughout the show, a series of mini-proscenium stages comes and goes, framing the vaudeville numbers (“Baby June and Her Newsboys,” which hilariously becomes “Baby June and Her Farmboys”) and offering some sharp shifts in perspective, as when the riotously effective stripper trio, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” takes its final bows far upstage. These are Robbins’ original staging ideas taken a step or two further. Three steps would’ve been better, but you take what you can get.
Attuned to Peters’ lower-keyed approach, performances such as John Dossett’s agent Herbie and Tammy Blanchard’s Louise-turned-Gypsy have a comfortable, offhanded quality in their favor (though their counterparts in the Tyne Daly revival popped out more).
As always, it’s the Wichita broads who sing “Gimmick” who slay, slay, slay. Kate Buddeke plays Mazeppa, sharing the show-stopping number with Heather Lee’s Tessie Tura and, as a daintily sloshed Electra, Julie Halston.
So it’s a pretty good production of an amazing musical. Nothing to sneeze at, not a revival for the ages. With Peters, though, it’s a trickier instance of someone who, in the end, isn’t quite right for the role. Yet her portrayal of monstrously conflicted mother love periodically breaks your heart, even as your heart is breaking over the greatness Mendes’ revival never attains.
Michael Phillips is theater critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.