The promotional posters feature just three unpunctuated words — ”Patti LuPone Gypsy” — and only one pictured performer. As a bit of diva genuflection, it’s actually deserved. But that solo-bow huzzah isn’t nearly the whole story of the superb Broadway revival that opened March 27 at the St. James Theatre. Yes, LuPone is brassy and outsize and magic. You watch her and feel jolts of ecstasy at the certain knowledge you’re witnessing something incandescent, transient, and uncapturable in any mere recording or verbally rhapsodic description. As Mama Rose, the old-school stage mother whose ambition to turn her two daughters into vaudeville stars alienates everyone around her, LuPone makes you love, loathe, and pity the show’s central character. Most of all, LuPone makes you understand Rose, in ways wondrous and completely new.
Still, a lot of what the star pulls off here grows directly out of the strength and range of the supporting cast. We love Rose in good part because we believe that her agent and partner, Herbie (Boyd Gaines), genuinely adores her. We grasp the corrosive power of Rose’s pushiness because we see how it hurts her poor, awkward daughter Louise (Laura Benanti) as she tries desperately to prove worthy, finally making a name for herself only in that degraded mutation of vaudeville called burlesque. (The three decrepit strippers who initiate a teenage Louise into the profession have never been funnier, especially Marilyn Caskey as a near-comatose ”Electra.”) And as Rose’s other long-suffering scion, June, who’s trapped talking icky baby talk in a creaky act that never changed as she grew up, Leigh Ann Larkin projects deep reserves of rage. She pushes right to the edge of Carol Burnett Show parody and sticks all of her split-legged landings in a performance that’s just short of caricature. For keeping all this in balance, kudos are due director and book author Arthur Laurents, who at 89 has distilled the show — first staged in 1959 — into a series of primal emotional confrontations.
And wow, does LuPone magnify and illuminate what the rest of the troupe is doing. Some people liked Bernadette Peters’ cooler take on Rose a few years back on Broadway. Some people ain’t me. Now nearly 59 and seemingly strong as an ox, LuPone does even better work here than she did nearly a year ago in an Encores! staged-concert version of the show. Thankfully, she’s no longer sporting a distractingly silky bob-cut wig. Instead, she’s got curls that seem like tendril extensions of the held-in-check Medusa raging inside. Channeling an inner frump without fear or vanity, she illuminates corners of Rose’s wounded psyche that nobody has plumbed before. Sample grace note: In the scorching, sung-soliloquy finale ”Rose’s Turn,” LuPone picks up a coat and mimes turning it into an infant bound in swaddling clothes. She then hurls it away in a rage — a brilliantly physical enactment of Rose’s anger at ultimately being rejected by her grown-up ”girls.” To cap the same song, LuPone reaches out for the bulbs in a fading marquee display of her own name, thrusting her arms up like Frankenstein’s monster trying to capture the lightning that animated him. Indelible stuff, which on the night I attended drew one of the longer ovations I’ve ever beheld.
Most revivals offer a pleasant evocation of past glories. This one redefines the material, and makes great, soul-nurturing art out of a dysfunctional family’s pain. LuPone deserves her spotlight poster. In a perfectly just theatrical world, the other players would each get one, too. (Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com) A