Rose Is a Rose

Bernadette's Turn: Peters as a feminine Mama Rose, in Gypsy.Photo: Joan Marcus

High among top-notch American musicals is the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents Gypsy, though no show (Nine, for recent example) is wholly foolproof. We have seen some inferior Gypsys, of which the current revival was rumored to be one. But there seems to have been enough last-minute repair work to make this Gypsy stand favorable comparison with the legendary original. The alleged drawbacks—the scenery and Mama Rose—have been brought up to snuff and, in the case of Bernadette Peters, well beyond.

Most Mama Roses have been too butch or brash (Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, and even Ethel Merman), too sophisticated (Angela Lansbury), or too ladylike (Betty Buckley). It remained for Peters to achieve the perfect blend of fanaticism and femininity, of monster and victim. Here for once is a demonic stage mother who can also convey sexiness, pathos, and charm. We understand now how she could enslave a man, make children her thralls, breach hearts and barriers, and steal restaurant flatware with puckish style. Also what made her what she is—desperate to attain vicariously through a daughter what her background prevented her from becoming herself.

Much credit must go to the direction of Sam Mendes and the additional choreography of Jerry Mitchell, who retained most of Jerome Robbins’s dazzling originals and added a few winning touches of his own. Mendes, among much else, came up with a smaller proscenium arch within the actual proscenium, allowing us to see, as Baby June and Baby Louise perform, the wings where Rose and Herbie empathize (Rose even—very movingly and slightly frighteningly—duplicating her daughters’ turns).

There is much distinguished acting. John Dossett is easily the most convincing Herbie yet: finely calibrated and thoroughly believable. Tammy Blanchard is a satisfactory Louise, especially in her scene with Tulsa (a winning David Burtka), but who can equal the definitive Louise of Crista Moore? Dainty June is competently handled by Kate Reinders, although the squeals of Heather Tepe’s Baby June are a bit too high for non-canine ears. Addison Timlin touchingly conveys Baby Louise’s shyness and awkwardness with economy and finesse remarkable in a child actor. As the strippers, Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke, and Julie Halston (neatly doubling as Miss Cratchitt) hit the mark.

Anthony Ward’s sets and costumes will do nicely, though seeing stagehands at work adds a Brechtian touch made not enough or too much of. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer supply inconspicuously incisive lighting, and even the little lamb is a perfect little lamb. It is good to have Gypsy back: an old friend one doesn’t wish to be separated from for too long.

Estelle Parsons, the director of Salome: the Reading, explains in a program note that a mere reading is corroborated by Oscar Wilde’s having actually written Salome “to be read for the beauty of the language.” To be read for that, perhaps, but staged for a good deal more. Wilde wrote it in French for Sarah Bernhardt, not one to stint on production values. Readings belong in a concert hall; in a theater, the play needs all the help it can get. And indeed, this production has embryonic scenery, costumes, lighting, and music, and some vestigial action.

Still, if beauty of language is your selling point, it would help if your cast could manage acceptable stage English rather than low-rent New Yorkese—Al Pacino’s included (not to mention his mispronunciations: mien as a disyllable, exquisite misstressed, and so on). The Italian for salami is salame; that for ham might as well be Salome, at least in this reading. Pacino has played Herod before, and the part does lend itself to some excess, which is what he now looks for in a role. He’ll do anything for a cheap laugh, perhaps confusing buffo with boffo, relishing sudden leaps from hangdog schlemiel to heaven-storming ranter, from grotesque wiggleworm to fire-breathing basilisk—enough imploding pauses, demented stares, and wheedling singsong for six characters in search of a straitjacket. Did Al never hear Hamlet’s admonishment to the actors not to out-herod Herod, an act punishable by whipping?

Marisa Tomei at least gets one thing right: Her princess is a spoiled teenager, but, a tolerable belly dance notwithstanding (no seven veils, alas), she does not sound the depths of repressed sexuality run amok. David Strathairn is hamstrung by Jokanaan, a part that is mostly invective; sensibly, he is not all roar, but neither does he soar. The most intelligent performance is the restrained Herodias of Dianne Wiest, unfortunately too refined for her surroundings. Most ludicrous, next to Pacino, is the comedy team of Captain (Chris Messina) and Page (Timothy Doyle), the one a baby roaring for his rattle, the other a female impersonator petulant about being deprived of his drag.

The movie Enchanted April, though a crowd pleaser, was unjustly given short critical shrift. Perhaps this deserving stage adaptation by Matthew Barber will right the balance. It lacks the film’s sumptuous photography and Joan Plowright; in other respects, it winsomely holds its own. Impatient younger Americans may find the play not quite to their liking: too remote, genteel, and leisurely paced. But anyone over 40 should be entertained; over 50, delighted; and over 60 … well, enchanted. It is old-fashioned in the most vine-ripened way, harking back to the kind of theater that once made Broadway a civilized place where our senses were not assaulted and we could be tickled without condescension from the moment the red curtain (there was such a thing then) went up.

It is the story of four very different Englishwomen who escape from a chilly and wet London to a modest but radiant small Italian seaside castle, which they jointly rent for one fragrant April in 1922. Middle-aged but youthfully hopeful Lottie has a calculating solicitor husband who bullies her; much younger Rose is married to a playboy poet who suavely cheats on her; young Lady Caroline is a sexy and sophisticated war widow who needs a little respite from the social and sexual whirl; old Mrs. Graves, an autocratic and snooty widow, full of childhood memories of meeting her father’s acquaintances—Carlyle, Tennyson, Arnold, “all the great men”—is now lonely and waspish. There are also Antony, the pleasant young English painter who owns the castle, and Costanza, the jolly Italian housekeeper, old but wonderfully spry and saucy.

Out of this one sun-drenched and flower-scented Mediterranean April, the play (based on Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel) weaves a somewhat facile but chuckleful set of imbroglios leading up to a heartening climax, cannily directed by Michael Wilson and delectably acted by all. Jayne Atkinson is a pluckily heart-stealing Lottie, Molly Ringwald a perkily pert but secretly romantic and vulnerable Rose, Dagmara Dominczyk a Lady Caroline stepped out from the pages of Evelyn Waugh, and Elizabeth Ashley a Mrs. Graves (aside from a rather southern Britishness—beyond Devon or Cornwall, more like Georgia) as outrageously, imperturbably Liz Ashley as ever—and who would wish her otherwise? Patricia Conolly is an ideal Costanza, and the three men—Michael Cumpsty, Daniel Gerroll, and Michael Hayden—leave nothing to be desired. My only regret is Tony Straiges’s scenery: a bit skimpy in Act One, and, in Act Two, with a backdrop of schmaltzily painted hypertrophic flora. But Jess Goldstein’s costumes are spirited, and the perfume of wisterias permeates the gossamer goings-on in the sweetly ditsy Act Two.

The Look of Love is a revue that took four people to conceive, thirteen to perform, and two—the composer Burt Bacharach and the lyricist Hal David—to make unnecessary. The tunes, with one or two exceptions, range from Las Vegas lounge to James Bond movie; the lyrics, from second-rate to claptrap. Such songs are good enough for their populist purposes as backgrounds to cocktails or under 007 titles, but, despite one successful musical (Promises, Promises), unsuitable for wholesale consumption out of their initial context.

The contrivers are David Thompson, Scott Ellis, David Loud, and Ann Reinking, whose sassy choreography is what is memorable here, as are Derek McLane’s spectacularly architectonic scenery—eye-popping, almost continually morphing steel-and-wire constructions (though not put to optimal use)—and Howell Binkley’s color-happy lighting. The performers can sing or dance, in some cases both; what they cannot do is act or look good enough to pass muster in a more demanding venue, such as Vegas. The grand climax is a choral rendering of the bathetic “What the World Needs Now”; what it surely doesn’t need is this unlovable Look of Love.

Theater Listings
Openings and Closings
Broadway Shows
Off-Broadway Shows

Revival of the musical, staged by Sam Mendes, starring Bernadette Peters.

Salome: The Reading
Revival of the Oscar Wilde play, starring Al Pacino.

Enchanted April
Play based on the film and novel, starring Jayne Atkinson, Molly Ringwald, Elizabeth Ashley, and Patricia Conolly.

The Look of Love
The songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Rose Is a Rose