By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A strong Patti LuPone vibe buzzes through Lyric Stage's Gypsy, running through September 18 at the Irving Arts Center, and not just because the company purchased all the costumes from the most recent Broadway production, the one that starred LuPone as that mother of all stage mothers, Momma Rose.
The Depression-era wardrobe (designed for LuPone by Martin Pakledinaz) seems tailor-made for actress Sue Mathys, imported from Switzerland to play Rose at Lyric, but so does the role itself. Looking a little like LuPone, with hints of her vocal ferocity, plus some of the brassy belt and comic timing of the original Momma, Ethel Merman, Mathys gives a knockout performance in one of the best shows Lyric has done since last fall's My Fair Lady.
Lyric Stage keeps topping itself, putting on musicals on the scale of the Broadway shows of 50 years ago. The costumes may be recycled, the scenery rented (in this case from Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera), but Lyric goes all out on the music. Not even that stripped-down 2008 LuPone Gypsy was as big as the one in Irving. That's Lyric founder and producer Steven Jones' mission, directing the company's resources to restoring the scores of great American musicals and performing them the way their composers intended.
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For Gypsy (book by Arthur Laurents; music by Jule Styne; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), Lyric's musical director Jay Dias went back to the original orchestrations and put 40 musicians in the pit. They include a harp, eight cellos, two double basses, 12 violins and an acoustic guitar — more strings than there were when the show opened on Broadway in 1959, when instruments were cut against the composer's wishes.
With one of the greatest overtures of any musical, Gypsy's score starts big and just keeps getting bigger by the scene. In the first act, as Momma Rose and her moppet vaudeville act try to break into the Orpheum circuit, there are endless reprises of "Let Me Entertain You," but we also get "Some People," "Small World," "If Momma Was Married," "All I Need Is the Girl" and the dynamite closer "Everything's Coming up Roses." The second act is talkier, but "Together, Wherever We Go" and "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" move the plot with catchy tunes. The finale, "Rose's Turn," is a show in itself, an aria really, part nervous breakdown, part declaration of independence. As performed by Mathys, it clinches the deal.
Based loosely on the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the story is really about the love affair between Gypsy's pushy mother, Rose, and the business of show. Touring to the seamier playhouses of the waning days of vaudeville, Rose envisions nothing but stardom for the daughter with talent, Baby June (played at Lyric by the adorably screechy Kristin Wright and then, older, by Ashton Smalling). Louise, the tomboy (played as a child by Taylor Hennings and then as a young woman by Mary McElree), wears the cow costume in the act but secretly dreams of partnering as a hoofer with the best boy dancer among Baby June's "Newsboys." He's a cutie named Tulsa, played by the other out-of-towner in this production, terrific young song-and-dance man Michael Whitney.
Directed and choreographed by Len Pfluger, working from the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, Lyric's production, when it's flying, really soars. "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," with the three old strippers giving young Louise lessons in how to "bump it with a trumpet," is the topper, solid crackerjack musical comedy featuring Sara Shelby-Martin as Mazeppa, Caitlin Carter as Tessie Tura and Shannon McGrann as Electra.
If only their energy could be infused into the last third of the show, which starts to slow down about the time Louise gets into stripper drag. The boost of erotic excitement just isn't there as this novice ecdysiast dips and strips her way to star status at Minsky's Burlesque, a sequence that's almost unbearably balky. Young Mary McElree, good as the awkward Louise, just doesn't have the oomph in her strut as she peels off sparkly costumes to yet another round of "Let Me Entertain You." You long for the confident hip action of Tessie Tura.
So it's up to Mathys, working those LuPone notes and worn-in costumes, to carry Gypsy to its rousing conclusion, an assignment she's more than prepared to handle. Yep, this Momma's got the stuff. When her Rose finally gets a turn in the spotlight, you'll wonder what took her so long.
Uptown Players' Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival continues through one more weekend with shows running in all corners of Frank Lloyd Wright's Kalita Humphreys Theater. The don't-miss is the funny one upstairs: Paul Rudnick's The New Century, three half-hour monologues and one short one-act about gay people and the parents who love them. (It's on just one more time at the fest, at 4 p.m. Saturday.)
Marisa Diotalevi opens the Rudnick comedies, all directed by Andi Allen, with Pride and Joy, playing Helene Nadler, a carefully coiffed Jewish mom from Massapequa giving a speech to "Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others." Diotalevi is hilarious and Rudnick's quips come fast and fizzy as Helene talks about coping with the surprising revelations that her three brilliant children are lesbian, lesbian/transsexual and a leather fetishist whose sex life includes, from time to time, human excreta. Helene expresses disapproval of the latter, saying she told her son "David, in this house we use the toilet — not a friend from Tribeca."
Paul J. Williams is up next as Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, a noodle-wristed Florida cable access talk show host who offers lessons in gayness. How to tell if your theater date is gay? "He's saving his Playbill. And he's awake." Mr. Charles also gives us a 60-second history of gay plays, a quick flash of tour de force as tap-danced by Williams that has the audience gasping with laughter.
Lulu Ward stars in the third and best vignette as Barbara Ellen Diggs, a craft expert from Decatur, Illinois, who shares her love of macaroni art and hot-glue projects. "Crafts help me express myself ... and create something worth dusting." She also tells the story of her gay son, who died of AIDS, and her subsequent cathartic visits to Ground Zero, Christo's "Gates" in Central Park and, finally, the Century XXI discount clothier in Lower Manhattan. "It's like if Patti LuPone were a store," she gushes. Ward, wearing a Quacker Factory sweater, knits real emotion into this piece. Just lovely.
Not that you'd think of taking kids to this show, but if you do, know that they won't get the jokes and, oh, yeah, there's a naked man in it. He's Brandon Simmons, playing Mr. Charles' young "ward," Shane. His appearance in the altogether is one of Rudnick's jokes about gay theater, where gratuitous full frontal nudity is not uncommon.
Simmons, who strides onstage in the buff con brio to roars of approval from the crowd, could teach a thing or two to the young actress in Gypsy. Ya either got it, or ya ain't, sings Momma Rose in that show. And boys, he's got it.