We had no idea when we made plans months ago to attend a friend’s wedding on the east coast that our trip fell during Yom Kippur. We made plans to stay in New York for two days before the wedding and see several plays with Kendall’s mom. A month or two later, the wedding got cancelled but we decided to keep our non-refundable tickets. It was only then that I glanced at a calendar and realized that our front-row tickets to see “Gypsy” fell on the eve of Yom Kippur, the night when we would normally be at our synagogue listening to the solemn Kol Nidre prayer. Oops. Maybe that’s why we were able to get such good tickets. If Jews abandoned Broadway, the theatre industry would collapse overnight.
I regretted missing Kol Nidre. I missed our rabbi's wisdom and I longed to hear our synagogue’s visiting cantor, Juval Porat, the first ordained cantor in Germany since World War II, chant the haunting Aramaic melody three times, gradually increasing in intensity, as is the ancient custom. But at the risk of blasphemy, can I say that listening to Patti LuPone had a similar effect on me? Do I dare comment that watching “Gypsy” was something of a religious experience? During my last trip to New York in March, I was lucky enough to see the very first preview of this latest version of the musical. I was bowled over then, even though there were a few rough spots, including when a piece of the ceiling fell on an audience member’s head during a particularly emotional scene between Rose and Louise, with the poor woman being carried out by paramedics.
Since that time, the plaster molding in the St. James Theatre has been secured, and the actors in “Gypsy” have worked out all the kinks. I obviously haven’t seen all of the Broadway productions of this story (the night I was born in 1959 Ethel Merman was warbling on stage as the original Mama Rose) but I’ve seen most of them and I have no choice but to think that this is the most skilled, emotionally realized version that will ever be mounted. I feel bad that in my original “review” I was critical of Boyd Gaines’ Herbie, a difficult and somewhat thankless role that I now believe he masters as no one before him has. The chemistry and sexual tension between LuPone and Gaines is palpable in this show and makes some of the shakier parts of the plot all the more understandable and moving.
Laura Benanti continues to be the best Gypsy Rose Lee that ever emerged like a butterfly from the cocoon of shy Louise. For once people leave the theatre without wondering why the musical is called “Gypsy” and not “Mama Rose.” This was the first time Kendall saw this version of the show and she surprised herself by shedding a tear during Benanti's heart-rending performance of "Little Lamb." Kendall didn't think any actress could make that treacly song work. Sitting in the first row, I was thrilled to be singled out by Benanti during the sequence when Louise transforms from a terrified stripper thrust into the spotlight into Gypsy Rose Lee, the confident and gorgeous Queen of Burlesque. In one bit when Gypsy starts interacting with the audience, she asked a man sitting near me if he knew what an ecdysiast (ek-diz’-e-ast) was (the fancy word for stripper that was coined by H. L. Mencken with Gypsy Rose Lee in mind). The guy was clueless and sat there blankly, paralyzed by the attention he was getting. Benanti then turned to me. “HE knows what an ecdysiast is,” she exclaimed provocatively, staring at me as she shimmied across the stage. “Aw, look, he’s turning red! Don’t be embarrassed. I love a man with no hair!” I was never happier to be bald!
And what is there to say about Patti LuPone, other than the fact that her voice carries with it the same spiritual and emotional resonance as the greatest cantors in the history of Judaism? Is that over the top? Am I just trying to assuage my guilt at attending this show instead of being deep in prayer? Perhaps, but I still say LuPone’s voice is a conduit to the Divine. Throughout the musical, LuPone shows Rose’s internal battles with endless skill and subtlety. How her actions so often flicker between her desperate attempts to expiate the sins and crushing disappointments of her own life and her fierce desire to give her daughters the opportunities no one ever cared enough to give to her. She is a monster and a savior, an abusive parent and a shining example of selfless Mother Love. For all her torment of June and Louise, both ended up with lives and careers that they loved, even if they had to sacrifice their childhoods to get there and grow to despise their mother in the process.
Any self-consciousness LuPone may have had at that first preview is long gone. She owns the role outright, and it seems as if every emotion she’s ever experienced, good or bad, informs her channeling of this character. LuPone, Gaines, and Benanti all won Tonys this year, an amazing feat that only seems to strengthen their camaraderie on the stage, as well as their ability to play off the more troublesome, unflattering aspects of their characters.
Gypsy Rose Lee’s life was about pain and loss, triumph and rebirth, sin and redemption. It is the perfect Yom Kippur story.