by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Gypsy" -- What's all the fuss about?
Book- Arthur Laurents
Music- Jules Styne
Lyrics- Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Sam Mendes
Sam S. Shubert Theater
225 West 44th Street
239-6200 or 800-432-7250
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden June 10, 2003

This is the third revival of "Gypsy." First it was Ethel Merman several decades ago, then it was Angela Lansbury, next it was Tyne Daly, and now Bernadette Peters in the lead role of Rose, the obnoxious mother of Gypsy Rose Lee. As some may not know, Gypsy Rose Lee was a famous stripper who, for some mysterious reason, was celebrated in her time, and thus, the heroine of this musical. She started in burlesque, took her clothes off like the rest of the "girls," only she did it in style (if that's what it's called) and, in the process, became rich and famous. Anxious for an education and hoping to become an intellectual, she studied French, mixed with hightoned celebrities, and wrote several articles for magazines. Then came her best selling memoir, with its unflattering picture of her mother Rose, which is the basis of the musical "Gypsy."

"Gypsy" is thought to be the best American musical ever produced. What, I wonder, earned this reputation? And what prompted some critics to write long nostalgic articles about their boyish reaction to this story? And what was it about this musical that caused a furor along Broadway because of Bernadette Peters who, many thought, was the wrong choice for the exacting role of Rose? The argument about Peters developed into mean press articles by some small time press people hoping to gain notoriety by damning an actress and singer who had gained the love and admiration of many Broadwayites. Finally it all became a small tempest.

Let me say at the onset I have never found "Gypsy" that engaging, or that important as to be involved in any controversy about Bernadette Peters, or even about the merits of the show. The tale of a stripper smart enough to make it big was (and is) of tabloid interest but that's about all. Besides, nothing in this sentimental show is really interesting, not Gypsy, or Rose, a conniving barracuda whose desire to make her daughters stars overrides everything in her life. Rose is considered by some the so called heroine of this ghastly tale. But she is far from a heroic character. She is a crude schemer with no talents of her own, who compensates by pushing her girls onto the stage. Both did succeed, especially Gypsy but Rose is left sort of alone and friendless at the end. Essentially the plot is a Mildred Pierce story, a Joan Crawford soap opera: the devoted mother who sacrifices everything for the ungrateful daughter. So what is all the fuss about?

Some say the strength of "Gypsy" is the score. But is this score better than "Fiddler on The Roof", "West Side Story," "My Fair Lady" to name three of the really greatest American musicals? And is the story of this stripper and her irritating mother more interesting than the three I have mentioned. I leave that to you dear audience who might want to judge for yourselves.

Now for the fuss about Bernadette Peters. The gossip around town did not affect the brilliant reviews she received from the newspaper of record, as well as from the "New Yorker." She was praised for giving "heart" to the scheming Rose, for softening her up, so to speak, and for offering a new and brilliant interpretation. Was it all true? Did she give a remarkable performance?

Bernadette Peters is a good looking, youngish women who should be playing sweet leading ladies and no more. She has a crude off key voice that is very nasal and very raucous. She sings all the songs the same way--loud. She faces the audience and shouts into her body mike. She is not really a good actress. She has two emotions: angry or sad, and sometimes she wise cracks. Mostly she comes across as an unsympathetic, nasty, crude woman. So I cannot go along with the critics who loved her.

Now for the production. Sam Mendes is an overrated British director, although he won an academy award for his first film "American Beauty." He has run the Donmar Warehouse in London for ten years, where he directed numerous hits, and won many prestigious awards. He has also worked at the British National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he directed all kinds of plays. On Broadway his revival of "Cabaret" was quite successful and is still running. But his "Uncle Vanya" at The Brooklyn Academy of Music this past season was poorly cast and poorly produced.

His work in "Gypsy" is a mystery: there is nothing innovative or original on that stage; in fact the production is somewhat banal and slow moving, though it picks up in the second act. What is also surprising are the very ordinary sets and costumes by Anthony Ward despite his spectacular background in ballet, musicals, and Shakespeare. So what did Sam Mendes contribute?

The same can be said for the dances. It is hard to imagine that Jerome Robbins, that master of the ballet, that creator of "West Side Story" and "Fiddler" was the original choreographer, and is still credited with the dances. It almost seems as if someone has tampered with his work. The dances are plainly pedestrian, though in some cases they should be because they are the product of Rose's untalented troupe. So Robbins had a difficult chore to produce numbers for so called second raters and yet make them theatrically interesting. It was a hard task and I can't say he succeeded.

So what's all the fuss? It beats me. The Broadway season and the culture of Broadway is at its worst low point with its junky revivals, silly plays, and endless one-person shows which mean nothing. People are trying to revive something of the past that may have been alive for its time. But nostalgia doesn't work these days, considering what faces us: the war, the fight on terror, and the terrible economy.

I'm sorry "Gypsy" is a disappointment. But I respect the company, the ordinary men and women who have to slug it out every night and who work like dogs. And although this was not a show I would recommend, people seemed to love it the night I saw it. And as usual, the audience gave the cast a standing ovation--a standard procedure these days, regardless of the quality of the production. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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