A LuPone and a Gypsy for a Broadway Time Capsule; Summer Broadway Festival; Lois Smith Surfaces; Summer Film; Screen Goddesses
by Ellis Nassour

    Thank God Patti LuPone decided not to spend the summer at her South Carolina beach house. She's right here in New York City at City Center and, WOW! does she entertain.

    The "musical star built for another age, an Ethel Merman without portfolio," as the New York Times' Jesse Green recently referred to her, is receiving cheers and standing ovations [and that's before the show is half over] for her Rose's turn as the stage mother from hell in Gypsy, the quintessential Broadway musical from another age. With her astounding performance, she can hang her portfolio with pride right next to Merman's star.

    In Styne/Sondheim/Laurents' Gypsy, the first musical revival of the season and a special, limited Summer Stars engagement [through July 29] of City Center Encores!, LuPone is a musical force of nature. This Gypsy is hers. Her Rose is in a word, dazzling; a tour de force. It will be talked about for months and remembered for years.

    If in 100 years, you wanted theatergoers to experience the definitive and classic Broadway backstage musical and the dynamics of a dynamic leading lady, put a video of this revival in a time capsule and bury it under the bleachers of the TKTS booth.

    It's simply mind-boggling to think that when originally presented on Broadway in 1959, Gypsy didn't win Tonys for Best Musical, Actress and Director [Jerome Robbins] [back then a nomination for Best Musical, included the composers and book writer] and was totally overlooked by Drama Desk.

    Can't you just hear The Merm's reaction when the Tony honors went to Fiorello! and The Sound of Music [a tie] and Mary Martin [SOM]. You have to wonder, especially with Merman's earth-shattering performance, what the voters were thinking.

    LuPone comes to City Center following her acclaimed Tony and DD-nominated Mrs. Lovette in John Doyle's 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd and, between regional theater and concert dates, doing Rose last summer in a semi-staged production at the Ravina Festival outside Chicago with the Chicago Symphony.

    The Tony and Olivier Award-winning belt queen is a formidable presence. She's not known for giving laid-back performances, but here she seems to be drawing energy from a nuclear power plant. Her diction is so clear and precise you might think she works part-time as a traveling elocutionist.

    Whether in glacial eye-to-eye combat with Louise or a stage manager, charming the pants off Herbie with calculating but disarming ease, lurking upstage, being twirled by him in a playful dance that ends with him dipping her to a back-breaking, spine-tingling depth where she ends up rolling on the floor or as a woman on the verve of a nervous breakdown railing against the world in front of a ghost light, LuPone is unstoppable.

    Once her train leaves the station, the actress' fierce, unrelenting engine that surely, surely can makes incredibly steep climbs and dizzying descents.

    If beverage makers could discover the secret of what sustains and propels LuPone at 58 [seven years older than Merman was when the musical debuted], well, move over Red Bull and all those assorted vitamin and caffeine-laced drinks.

    If, as is the buzz, buzz, buzz along the stem, the show goes to London, LuPone, already beloved there, will be the toast of the West End. One can only hope that then the show will return stateside and to Broadway.

    However, although LuPone is the sum of all of this Gypsy's parts, there are other noteworthy elements.

    With City Center's limited stage facilities and the fact that this is a three-week run, James Youman's scenery [with vaudeville announcement signs so hastily written that they appear to be still dripping paint] is necessarily no-frills; but there's nothing no-frills about Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, Howell Binkley's lighting, the direction and, especially, the cast.

    The production is blessed with two extraordinary costars. Laura Benanti grows from awkward Baby Louise to a radiant, sexy Gypsy Rose Lee. Boyd Gaines* tries hard to melt into the background as weak Herbie but his poignant, fine-tuned stage presence just won't let him.

    [*Gaines, a Tony nominee and DD winner for the recent revival of Journey's End, is back in his first "traditional" musical since appearing in later casts of Roundabout's Cabaret and Company revivals and his Tony and DD-winning role in their 1993 She Loves Me revival; for his non-singing role in LCT's 2000 Contact, he received the Tony and a DD nom.]

    It doesn't stop there, which is one reason this Gypsy never goes flat when LuPone's not center stage.

    Book writer/director Arthur Laurents is a legendary pro's pro when it comes to book. His book for the show has been heralded as a master class in musical theater libretto, but one might forget its endearing moments and ton of one-liner zingers.

    As director of the 1974 [Lansbury] and 1989 [Daly] Gypsy revivals, he's on familiar turf but, even at age 90 [is he emulating George Abbott?], he's never asleep at the wheel. He keeps this Gypsy moving fast, belying its two hour and 40 minute running time.

    Laurents also has a flair for casting. Some examples are the scene-stealing Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel [not only as trumpet-blowing Mazeppa, but also as wise-cracking Miss Cratchitt] and Marilyn Caskey; a star-making turn by handsome Tony Yazeck [as Tulsa]; Leigh Ann Larkin's anything but subtle Dainty June; Sami Gayle and Emma Rowley as young June and Louise; and a well-assembled ensemble [with special praise going to the acrobatic talents of the newsboy kids].

    Gypsy, which doesn't have a huge number of songs, is nonetheless packed with showstoppers.

    Of Act One's nine songs and production numbers, there's Rose's "Some People" with Lupone pulling out all the stops, "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "If Momma Was Married," Tulsa's' "All I Need Is the Girl" with poignant back-up from Louise and the Act One curtain of Act One curtains: "Everything's Coming Up Roses." In Act Two, there's Rose, Herbie and Louise's "Together," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" by Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura; and the finale of all finales, "Rose's Turn."

    Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler's original orchestrations and the dance arrangements by none other than John Kander [who was rehearsal pianist on the original production] are in the capable hands of music director Patrick Vaccariello and the 25-piece orchestra.

    Let's not forget the imprint of another formidable force of nature, Jerome Robbins. Bonnie Walker faithfully recreates his choreography, a highlight of which is the time-travel sequence, which remains as jawdroppingly awesome as it was when first introduced.

    Gypsy officially opened last night. Today will be dark, with LuPone on voice-rest after almost 10 back-to-back shows. Performances resume Monday. There's only the slimmest chance of an extension of even a few performances, but the good news is it's summer and not everyone's in town to fill City Center's 2,700 seats. You can get in, but hurry. There'll be long lines at the box office and the phone lines will be jammed.

    Jack Viertel is artistic director of City Center Encores! Bank of America is lead sponsor of the special summer series.

    Tickets [$25-$110] for Gypsy are available at the Center box office, through CityTix at (212) 581-1212 or online at http://www.nycitycenter.org/.

    Other Summer Happenings

    Town Hall's presenting the first installment of the first-ever Summer Broadway Festival Monday at 8 P.M. with the star-studded A Night at the Operetta, created, written and hosted by Scott Siegel [Broadway by the Year, Broadway Unplugged].

    Rebecca Eichenberger [Phantom of the Opera]; Marc Kudisch and Christiane Noll, fresh from their acclaimed performances in the U.S. premiere of The Witches of Eastwick at Arlington, VA's award-winning Signatgure Theatre; Tony and DD-nominee Mark Jacoby [a former Phantom and Ravenal]; Bistro Award-winner Douglas Ladnier [Jekyll & Hyde], Tony nominee Gavin Lee [Mary Poppins], who'll also be doing some of his tap footwork; Sarah Jane McMahon [NYCO's Pirates of Penzance]; William Michals, a former Beast, Gaston and touring Javert; and the opera star with echoes of Mario Lanza, John Easterl, are among the 12 golden-voiced headliners.

    Of course, you can expect some "unplugged" moments. After all, this is operetta. During its heyday of amazing popularity, there were no mikes. In fact, theatres then didn't even have A/C.

    Dan Foster directs with very capable musical direction and arrangements by that veteran of Forbidden Broadway [and Whoop-Dee-Doo!, Cabaret], Fred Barton. He'll be leading the Little Operetta Orchestra. Town Hall artistic director is Lawrence Zucker.

    A Night at the Operetta features the works of Romberg, Friml, Herbert and others from such classics as The Student Prince, The Enchantress, Rose Marie, The Merry Widow, Sweethearts, The Red Mill, The Desert Song and The New Moon.

    Tickets are $30 and $40 and available at the Town Hall box office, online at http://www.the-townhall-nyc.org/; through TicketMaster, (212) 307-4100 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/.

    The Summer Broadway Festival continues July 23rd at 8 P.M. with Broadway's Rising Stars, directed by Joel Froomkin with Tedd Firth as music director.

    The Festival concludes July 30th at 8 P.M. with All Singin'! All Dancin'!, an event that pays homage to spectacle created onscreen by Busby Berkeley and the magic created onstage and film by Astaire, Rogers, Kelly and numerous others. Choreographer and director Noah Racey is putting together a huge show, with a cast of thousands - well, hundreds - okay, over 30!

    Set to appear are Nancy Anderson, Joyce Chittick, Harvey Evans, Deidre Goodwin, Edward Hibbert, Julia Murney, Jim Newman, Rachelle Rak, Megan Sikora and Karen Ziemba. Ross Patterson will be music director.

    Lois Smith Surfaces at Symphony Space

    Through August 5, Symphony Space will present the world premiere of Surface to Air by David Epstein [the U.K. hit, Exact Change; the award-winning film, Palookaville] and directed by Tony and DD Award-winner James Naughton in its Peter Jay Sharp Theatre [Broadway at 95th Street]. DD winner Lois Smith [The Trip to Bountiful] and Tony and DD-winner Cady Huffman [of Producers fame] star. Huffman, in a rare non-musical role, plays a Hollywood studio exec.

    Surface to Air is the story of a family forced to confront long-repressed issues and current realities when the remains of their son, a Vietnam veteran, are returned to them 30 years after his plane was shot down.

    Two-time Tony nominee Smith has a busy schedule. Following Surface to Air, in September she'll star at Playrights Horizons in Kate Fodor's 100 Saints You Should Know and later repeat her acclaimed Bountiful performance at Chicago's Goodman.

    Stage/TV/film vet Bruce Altman and Tony, DD-nominee Larry Bryggman and James Colby [The Day Emily Married, The Butterfly Collection] co-star in the eight-member cast.

    STA is made possible by the support of A-List Broadway producers Bill Haber, Chase Mishkin, Judith Resnick and Daryl Roth.

    Tickets are $36 - $45 and available at the Symphony Space box office or by calling (212) 864-5400.

    Summer Fun at the Movies

    When big hair meet big dreams anything can happen is one of the taglines of the film adaptation of Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman/Mark O'Donnell/Thomas Meehan's Tony Award-winning musical Hairspray, which opens wide this Friday. There's no mention of big bods, but that just may not be necessary, well, because big girls don't cry.

    The stage musical and film are based on John Waters' 1998 film, starring Divine and Ricki Lake, about 1960s star-struck teenagers and one love-struck teenager who love to dance and shake things up - especially when it comes to integrating a popular Baltimore TV dance show.
    Will moviegoers out there wonder why Waters chose to have a man play a woman in the cult movie? And why it's still being done? Will they even care?

    Is the much-hyped, much-transformed man to woman John Travolta still A-List enough of a megastar to bring audiences in? Will Hairspray, the Movie break the bad-luck stage-to-screen record of The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera and Rent? Only the Shadow knows. If casting has anything to do with luck, it should have no problem.

    Starring in the eagerly-anticipated "high-energy comedy that proves you don't have to fit in to win," in addition to Travolta as Edna Turnblad, are newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy, Oscar-winner Christopher Walken [Wilbur Turnblad], three-time Oscar-nominee Michelle Pfeiffer [Velma Von Tussle] and Oscar and Golden Globe nominee Queen Latifah [Motormouth Maybelle].

    Amanda Bynes [from TV's What I Like about You, Paul Dooley, four-time Emmy-winner and four-time GG-nominee Allison Janney, James Marsden, Brittany Snow and Jerry Stiller add excellent support.

    Travolta is returning to his screen musical roots for the first time since Grease. Those of a certain age might remember him as Misfit on Broadway in 1974's Over Here, co-starring Maxine and Patti Andrews of Andrews Sisters fame and, in featured roles, Marilu Henner, John Mineo, Ann Reinking, Janie Sell, Douglass Watson, Treat Williams and Samuel E. Wright. Before that, JT was featured Off Broadway in '72's Rain [not by Maugham] and the same year joined the cast of the long-running '72 Grease revival.

    The Broadway show, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in August is going strong. It won eight 2003 Tonys, including Musical, Actor, Actress, Featured actor, Score, Book, Director and Costume design. In addition, it took home nine Drama Desk Awards.

    The musical film's director and choreographer is Adam Shankman, with the screenplay by Leslie Dixon, adapted from O'Donnell and Meehan's book. Shaiman and Wittman are also Grammy winners. In addition, Shaiman is a five-time Oscar nominee for various scores. The film boasts several new songs. The producers are Craig Zadan and Neil Meron [Chicago, film; Gypsy, Life with Judy Garland, TV].

    The current Broadway cast includes Paul Vogt as Edna, Shannon Durig as Tracy, Ashley Parker Angel and Alexa Vega. For more information about Hairspray on Broadway, visit http://www.hairsprayonbroadway.com/.

    Glenn's Back and FX's Got Her

    Multiple Oscar-nominee, Tony and DD-winner, Emmy-nominee [and a winner in 1995] and GG-nominee [and a winner in 2003] Glenn Close is back. Sadly, not onstage; but in Damages, a new TV series debuting July 24 on the FX Network. She plays a bulldog attorney who's "as ruthless as she is icy." Ah, a show with bite.

    Close admitted she had problems sinking her teeth into the role. "It was difficult because unlike theater or film, there wasn't a beginning, middle or end. The story just keeps going." For some help, she turned to her long-time acting coach, Harold Guskin. His advice: "just live in the moment. That way, you're up for whatever the writers throw at you."

    Shot in Brooklyn, Close has excellent co-stars in Ted Danson, Tate Donovan and Zeljko Ivanek. Tom Aldredge, Philip Bosco, Michael Nouri and Saundra Santiago are among the well-known stage actors appearing in the initial season.

    Close, who created a stir on the gritty series The Shield, hasn't given up the big screen. Production is rumored to begin soon on the film adaptation of Sunset Boulevard. But when is she returning to the stage?

    Summer Read: Screen Goddess Gardner Returns

    Men literally dropped when she walked by. Even the most gorgeous of babes were jealous of her. Ava Gardner was that beautiful. The sexually uninhibited to-say-the-least Gardner was not a disappointment to anyone who met her. Especially men.

    Onscreen, she was the sex symbol who dazzled all the other sex symbols. She was heat personified. Offscreen, she was the temptress who kept loony Howard Hughes at bay in spite of his lavishing diamonds and autos on her, haunted Ole Blue Eyes to the brink of suicide and drove The Mick to the edge of insanity.

    Lee Server serves up all the dish, and much, much more in Ava Gardner, "Love Is Nothing" [St. Martin's Press; mass market, 560 pages; SRP $18; filmography; index, 16 pages of B&W photos].

    There's no shortage of the nitty gritty as he explores her tumultuous private life of lovers, marriages [including Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra], wreckless living, hard drinking and self-imposed exile from Hollywood to a solitary life in London and self-destruction through alcohol, stroke and illness.

    The former North Carolina beauty, born and raised on a tobacco farm, arrived in Hollywood via a photo session in New York. She was shy and, to say the least, unpolished, but even without make-up she photographed beautifully. Louie B. Mayer and his MGM dream factory knew how to create stars.

    Gardner had roles in over 65 films, in addition to a TV series. She was only Oscar-nominated once - for her lusty role as Honey Bear in John Ford's African adventure Mogambo opposite Clark Gable. If the fates had been with her, she would have been nominated for her portrayal of brassy, world-weary Maxine Faulk in the 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana, for which she took home a Golden Globe and a BAFTA nomination.

    Ava Gardner was one of a handful of screen beauties whose life was grander and more colorful than any movie. She died much too early in 1990 at the age of 68. Servers' biography is a telling memento of it all, covered in quite intimate and graphic detail - much more so than in Gardner's posthumously-constructed autobiography Ava: My Story. Sadly, it lacks a happy ending.

    Speaking of Screen Goddesses

    Symphony Space's Thalia is presenting Dietrich & Garbo: Screen Goddesses in weekend double bills beginning at 6 P.M. through September 2. Highlights include the "knockout dream princesses" in Blonde Venus [1932] and Camille [1937] on July 21 and 22; Shanghai Express [1932] and Anna Karenina [1935], July 28 and 29; Morocco [1930] and A Woman of Affairs [1928], August 4 and 5. On August 18 and 19, Miss D's American debut Blue Angel [1930] screens with a silent of Miss G's, Flesh and the Devil [1926].

    The series lead sponsor is Zabars. Tickets are $11 [$7, members]. For full schedule and to purchage advance tickets, visit http://www.symphonyspace.org./

    [Photos: Encores! Gypsy, JOAN MARCUS; Surface to Air, RICK KALLAHER; Hairspray, the Movie, DAVID JAMES ]

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    Sunday, July 15, 2007 at 12:01 AM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.