The “Mama Roses,” Part 5: Patti LuPone

Patti LuPone - Gypsy

Patti LuPone – City Center Gypsy Playbill (Photo credit: Spin Cycle NYC)

It’s great to be able to have kept the Broadway “Mama Rose” blog I’ve most looked forward to writing for last.  As Jackie Gleason, the “Great One,” would have said, “How sweet it is!”

When I heard that, during the summer of 2007, Patti LuPone was going to play Mama Rose Hovick at the Encores production of Gypsy, I was delighted beyond measure.  I had seen her only once before, in Evita, back in the 1980’s.  She had been phenomenal; her singing voice never ceases to amaze me.  However, I have a distinct, almost total, preference for Broadway musical comedies, not dramas, and for upbeat, Broadway belt songs, not ballads.  It was amazing that I went to Evita at all, as a result, as it’s rather a sad story, but I had wanted to see Patti LuPone live.
Several years later, when she was in Anything Goes, I felt her voice was a perfect fit to the tuneful songs of Cole Porter.  Alas, I did not get over to Lincoln Center to see her in the role before she left it, but I still have, and love, the CD.
Which is why I was so thrilled to hear that this amazing performer would be starring in the Encores Gypsy.  I could not wait to hear Patti LuPone’s voice handle that awesome Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim score.  I just knew it was going to be off-the-charts, beyond-the-pale, drop-dead awesome.
Photo of Angela Lansbury.

Photo of Angela Lansbury. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, as I sat in the audience of City Center on the afternoon of the first time I would see Patti in the Encores Gypsy, I had to wonder what I always wonder whenever I see a new incarnation of Gypsy: would she be able to play the role as well as Angela Lansbury had?  Angela’s Gypsy is the benchmark, at least for me, against which all other Broadway shows – of any musical, not just this one – are measured.  It was the first Broadway show I ever saw.  It remains the best.  I’d seen two productions of Gypsy since the one with Angela, with Tyne Daly as a Rose of fire and Bernadette Peters as one more of water, softer and more flowing than the others, and while both had their merits, I felt Angela still didn’t have a comparable successor.  I doubted anyone in the entire theater world could ever play that role as well as Angela, but still, I held my breath for Patti.  Angela had hit every laugh line throughout what is predominantly a comedy script and still turned in a powerhouse of a performance of the last number, “Rose’s Turn,” which to anyone who doesn’t know, is a very dark song.  I knew, without a doubt, that Patti would deliver on the songs, so I sat in the grand old theater hoping she’d also be able to deliver in the rest of the part, too.

The Encores orchestra began playing the Overture, and whoa!  It was like a love fest, a rock concert, or a rally of the like-minded.  The audience started cheering right away, as soon as the first notes began, and we went completely collectively berserk when the strip music started.  It’s impossible not to start this show without being transported to the stratosphere with that Overture.  The previous incarnation of the show started on a high, too, then could not sustain it.  What would this one do?  Come on, Patti, I thought.  Get out front and show them, show the critics, show the whole world, how beautifully this show can be done!
The curtain rose.
And Patti delivered!  I have never seen anything quite like it.  She sallied forth with flying colors from the moment her voice came booming from the back of the theater, urging on her child with the line, “Sing out, Louise!”  Onto the stage Patti came, and she was the embodiment of Rose: petite, gutsy, and enjoying every moment of being a stage mother.  She didn’t play it like she was the “Stage Mother from Hell,” either.  This one was more of a Pied Piper.  I later found, when I read Arthur Laurents’ book, Mainly on Directing, that he had instructed her to sing her first number, “Some People,” infused with joy, since she wanted to “conquer the world by way of the Orpheum Circuit.”  I hadn’t seen “Some People” done so well since Guess Who?
It wasn’t just Miss LuPone who performed her role to perfection.  The whole cast, as an ensemble, was superb.
I didn’t just go to see the City Center Encores production once.  It was only there for three weeks; I went four times.  I went twice after work, since the theater was a block from the bus stop I take to get home, and why go directly home if you could pop in to see Patti play Mama Rose first?  Stage dooring it was fun.  Tyne Daly showed up one night, as did Nikki Blonsky, who was starring in the movie Hairspray, which just happened to be playing at the Ziegfeld Theater, across the way from City Center.  One fabulous Saturday I saw Hairspray the movie in the afternoon and Gypsy at City Center that night.  It made for a magical few weeks during what turned out to be one of the all-time best summers I ever had.
Gypsy moved to Broadway several months later, in March 2008, and Patti LuPone took home a Tony.  So did Laura Benanti, the first actress to play Gypsy Rose Lee to do so, and Boyd Gaines, the first Herbie to win.  Too bad there weren’t a few more categories so more of the cast could have been nominated.  In particular, the children in this production were wonderful, too.
They say that the torch will be passed to actress Imelda Staunton next.  She is going to be playing Mama Rose in London.  Hopefully her production will move from there to New York.  You know me, folks: I’ll be there.  There will just be one difference this time.  I won’t just be wondering if she’ll compare well to Angela.  I’ll be sitting in the audience, waiting for the curtain to rise, and wondering if she’ll be as fabulous as Angela and Patti.  I plan on hoping the very best for Imelda’s performance to deliver, too.
Premios Europa 2004

Imelda Staunton, Premios Europa 2004 (Photo credit: Cien de Cine)

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2 responses to “The “Mama Roses,” Part 5: Patti LuPone

    • Jule Styne composed the music for Gypsy; he was once a piano player in a Burlesque theater orchestra, so he really knew his stuff where that was concerned! That little bit of strip music that he put in the Overture is fabulous.

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