By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
NEW YORK -- Patti LuPone rumbles like a low-lying thundercloud all through the fine, funny and fiery "Gypsy" that has been shepherded to City Center by none other than the musical's 89-year-old librettist, Arthur Laurents.
The powerhouse LuPone heads a cast accessorized handsomely by the talents of Boyd Gaines, playing the hapless Herbie, and Laura Benanti, who undergoes the most galvanic metamorphosis from tomboyish Louise to eye-popping Gypsy Rose Lee you're ever likely to see.
Before delving more meaningfully into this limited-run production -- superior in many ways to Sam Mendes's rewarding 2003 revival with Bernadette Peters -- there is a need to get to news fast of another triumph: a newly arrived spoof that, if very skillfully marketed, could last on Broadway for quite a while.
That show is "Xanadu," and although it is not destined for a spot next to "Gypsy" on the classics shelf, it is the most infectiously silly show to land on Broadway since "Spamalot." A flamboyant lampoon of the 1980 big-screen bomb that effectively extinguished Olivia Newton-John's box-office mojo, "Xanadu" has been accorded a kind of second chance previously available only to transplant patients.
In this case, the donated organs are the delightfully addled brains of director Christopher Ashley and librettist Douglas Carter Beane. Gauging with astonishing accuracy our appetite for taking out the pop-cultural trash, they rake "Xanadu" over the coals with both disdain and affection. Parody, even of the most withering variety, works best when you can also feel the love.
And little bursts of joy explode all over the stage of the Helen Hayes Theatre, where "Xanadu" opened last week. From the ditsy Aussie locutions of the sure-footed Kerry Butler, to the madcap musical-comedy antics of Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, the show is like some lovingly orchestrated theme party for which the hosts try to see to it that every partygoer can have a good time.
A special merit badge, too, should be pinned to the broad chest of Cheyenne Jackson, who because of an injury to the lead actor, James Carpinello, at the last minute assumed the role of the musical's unassuming hero. He does so with a winning cluelessness -- ideal for portraying a Venice Beach lunkhead whose idea of an art form is roller disco.
Having a good time does not require familiarity with the movie or, for that matter, the score by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, which includes such pop hits of the time as "Magic," "Suddenly" and "Xanadu." The premise of the 90-minute show itself guarantees healthy snickers: The lunkhead, pursuing his dream of roller-disco entrepreneurship, is aided by a Muse from Greek mythology, played by Butler as a sendup of Newton-John. Thus from the exaggerated Down Under-ness of Butler's Clio does a phrase such as "Dreams come true" turn into "Dreams come tri-eee."
"Xanadu" blends an appreciation for old-style Broadway shtick -- at times, it recalls "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" -- with postmodern horror at the era of rotating disco balls and big hair. With exquisite logic, the nine Greek sister-Muses are represented here by only seven actors (including two in dire need of lowering their testosterone levels).
The plot may be entirely accidental -- Tony Roberts is amusingly on hand, too, as a rapacious, music-loving landlord who gives the lunkhead a space for his disco -- but the show's jubilant impact is not.
A different kind of jolt takes hold at City Center, where the exhilarating revival of "Gypsy" is ensconced through July 29. Laurents -- author of the scripts of this Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical and "West Side Story" -- has expertly distilled the ebullient comic spirit of this musical about the mother of all stage mothers and the terrible emotional toll her ambition takes on her daughters.
To an impressive gallery of Broadway performances that encompasses Evita Peron and Sondheim's meat-pie maven Mrs. Lovett, LuPone adds her movingly take-charge Momma Rose. The character's anger has rarely felt so transparent. Nothing halfway clings to this earthy interpretation. LuPone's Rose smiles, even manages to beam at times, but it's a harsher essence, one bordering on manic depression, that envelops the portrayal.
As a result, the finales Rose is given in each act -- "Everything's Coming Up Roses" at the end of Act 1, and especially, "Rose's Turn" in Act 2 -- benefit especially well from LuPone's power-belting, the sense that the songs don't merely rise from her lungs but also from her ankles. You're left with the thoroughly discomfiting sense of a woman of terrifying entitlement.
Gaines and Benanti hit their strides grandly, riding LuPone's furious wake. Benanti, who first came to notice as a replacement Maria von Trapp in a revival of "The Sound of Music" nearly a decade ago, might be the best-ever Louise (later to be reborn as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee). We're made to believe utterly in her caterpillar-to-butterfly development and, even more memorably, in a complexly rendered personality. Louise's pain and loneliness comes to the fore affectingly in "All I Need Is the Girl," when Benanti pallidly shadows the dance steps of the boy she admires from afar.
In those and other moments, Laurents reminds us how deftly "Gypsy" shifts from comedy to drama. And he's an inspiration for all those 89-year-olds out there with showbiz in their veins.
Xanadu, book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Sets, David Gallo; choreography, Dan Knechtges; music direction, Eric Stern; lighting, Howell Binkley; costumes, David Zinn. With Anika Larsen, Curtis Holbrook, Andre Ward, Kenita Miller. About 90 minutes. At Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.
Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Laurents. Music direction, Patrick Vaccariello; sets, James Youmans; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Binkley. With Nancy Opel, Tony Yazbeck, Alison Fraser, Marilyn Caskey. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through July 29 at New York City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org.