Bernadette Peters, Broadway's Gypsy queen

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   June 6, 2003 at 2:32 PM   |   0 comments

NEW YORK, June 6 (UPI) -- Producers of the $8.5 million Broadway revival of "Gypsy" found the right prescription for success by casting Bernadette Peters in the role of Mama Rose, previously played on stage, screen and television by Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Bette Midler.

Peters had some flu-related problems that kept her out of the show for a few performances when it first opened. But with that difficulty behind her everything's coming up roses for the actress, who seems to be in for a long reign at the Shubert Theater as queen of current Broadway musicals.

The 55-year-old star says she has been preparing to play Rose Hovick, the domineering, ambition-driven single mother of striptease performer Gypsy Rose Lee, most of her life.

She began her career as a panelist on TV's "Juvenile Jury" at age three, got her Equity card a few yeas later, and at 13 was singing in the chorus of the second national company of Gypsy starring Mitzi Green. Her sister, Donna, also joined the company as understudy to the juvenile Gypsy, Baby Louise. Peters understudied Agnes and Baby June, Louise's sister.

"I was just in the chorus originally but towards the end I played Agnes," Peters recalled in an interview.

"We all grew up on that show. Mama Rose is one of the greatest roles ever written with one of the greatest scores and one of the greatest books. How lucky I am to be able to do it and with such a wonderful director as Sam Mendes and with Arthur Laurents' and Stephen Sondheim's input."

Laurents is the show's librettist and Sondheim wrote the lyrics to the late Jule Styne's high-adrenalin music. It was Laurents who got Peters to participate in a benefit concert for the Gay Men's Health Crisis at Carnegie Hall in 1996 singing "Some People" from "Gypsy." She belted it out like the pro she is, and the idea to revive the show with her as Mama Rose was born.

Peters comes to the show from her recent Tony Award-winning performance as Annie Oakley in a Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun," a totally sympathetic role in contrast to that of Rose, who suffers a virulent case of stage motherhood, pushing her daughters (the future actress June Havoc and Louise) in an embarrassing, even brutal manner.

Frustrated in her own efforts to be a theatrical star, Rose is determined that her favorite daughter, June, succeed where she failed, and when June walks out on her she transfers her star-making efforts to the neglected Louise. Her hopes for Louise are stillborn due to the demise of the vaudeville circuit, so she forces her daughter into still popular burlesque, which Rose has always detested as the lowest form of entertainment.

Louise becomes the most famous of all strippers, Gypsy Rose Lee, following Rose's advice to never take it all off, and a glamorous figure with intellectual pretensions in celebrity society of the 1930s-1940s era. It was the heartbreak chapters of her best-selling memoirs that suggested a backstage musical show without the usual happy ending expected by Broadway audiences. "Gypsy" lost out in the 1960 Tony competition for best musical to "The Sound of Music."

As the final curtain falls on "Gypsy," Louise has left her mother in the dust, having told her that all she ever wanted was for her mother to notice her. Rose also is given a chance to explain herself in "Rose's Turn," a haunting song sung on a bare stage in which she laments what she might have been in the theater if she had not been "born too soon and started too late."

Peters is a perfect Rose, having retained her own girl-on-the-candy-box looks that matronly hats and dresses can't disguise. She is probably too old to be playing the role (Rose should be about 30 when the show opens), but it doesn't matter.

Peters' Rose can be flirtatious when it comes to men or getting her own way, and she walks seductively enough to earn a compliment from one of the old strippers in the show, "You know from the way that dame walks, she would have made a damn good stripper - in her day." Her voice isn't Merman's clarion trumpet, but it has enough brass in it to gleam at the right moments.

She is abetted in her more sympathetic moments by the superlative performance of John Dossett as the gentle, good-looking saleman who falls head over heels in love with Rose and eventually becomes her husband as well as the occasional target of her masochism. He is the fourth husband to walk out on her, but it is clear he still loves her.

Heather Tepe plays the young June and is appropriately appalling as a driven child act screaming "Let Me Entertain You," and Kate Reinders, an alumna of Off-Broadway's "A Year with Frog and Toad," is appropriately pathetic as the older June forced to wear little girl's clothes.

Addison Timlin plays the plain young Louise as a quiet tomboy, leaving the miraculous, before-your-eyes transition into a beautiful, vivacious woman to Tammy Blanchard as the older Louise. Blanchard, who won an Emmy Award for her characterization of Judy Garland on television, is proving herself an actress with a bright future.

Also outstanding are William Parry as Rose's disapproving father and three shopworn strippers who demonstrate the gimmicks that make their acts unique - Brooks Ashmanskas, Heather Lee, and Kate Buddeke.

Sam Mendes, the brilliant British stage and screen director best known on Broadway for "Cabaret," has given the show a freshness without tampering with concepts that made the original production memorable. Anthony Ward's sets and costumes evoke a tawdry chapter of theater history in all its vulgar appeal, and Jerome Robbins' inspired choreography has been retained with additions by Jerry Mitchell.

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