Just below the marquis of the St. James Theatre these days hangs a glittering sign that reads, “EVERYTHING’S COMING UP ROSES AT LAST AS PATTI LUPONE, BROADWAY’S GREATEST STAR, TAKES ON THE ROLE SHE WAS BORN TO PLAY….Love, Bernadette Peters.” (To be honest, BP may not have lent her name to the quote. That’s the part I put in.) The rest, however, is there in bold print. And anyone lucky enough to catch this eleven-hundredth commemoration of the perfect musical will most likely concur.
Patti -Loo, whose blubbering and probably hilarious speech will most certainly be cut short on Tony night this June, is in fact as amazing as she keeps telling everybody. Aside from being listed as a credit on her birth certificate, Patti’s Mama Rose is as brilliantly constructed as the material she’s working with. The gears she shifts from belting her last “for you!” at the end of Act One to wailing her final “for me!” at the end of Act Two are quite distinctly power surges coming from two different emotional outlets; each as thrilling as the other. Her journey is complete and executed flawlessly, and I hate when gay people say “flawless”. Simply put, the natural amalgamation of sexuality, captivating audaciousness, and molten lava that runs through that woman's veins makes her the ideal person to inhabit this role. Not to mention the voluminous voice and bountiful boobage which render her gratifyingly conventional. (Sorry, Bernadette. You know it’s true.)
I once worked in an office that was producing a show Patti was working on - I will not disclose which. ("But if you beg for more...I'll give it to you.") One matinee day the phone rang (somehow louder than usual and with much more vibrato.) I lifted the receiver toward my ear to begin my greeting and was urgently cut off by a very poised, determined, and loud Ms. LuPone asking to speak with the big boss. I later learned that she was calling between numbers to inform her producer that a man in the front row of the house was eating a bag of potato chips during her performance, and to ask that he be “taken care of”, as it were. I mean, she kind of IS Mama Rose.
In fairness, I believe that most of the actors in this revival deserve glittering signs announcing their genetic predispositions to play these parts. Or at the very least, handwritten Playbill inserts signed by their physicians. All bring a depth and certain authenticity to their respective roles that make their performances of these characters (revisited so often) fresh and lasting. Laura Benanti as Louise is stunning and as natural and organic on that stage as the salad bar in Whole Foods Supermarket. Through an exciting and profound onstage metamorphosis, her striking vulnerability dissolves seamlessly into seasoned burlesque bravado and eventually reveals itself as the resentment that drives her, in an explosive (and I think perfect) delivery of that final dressing room scene between “Frankenstein” and “monster”. She far surpasses just holding her own alongside the legendary LuPone. Leigh Ann Larkin sheds bright new light on Dainty June by lending a sultriness and an elemental defiance sharper than I’ve seen in other versions. (And she sings her tits off.) Boyd Gaines is a consummate Herbie, and the entire supporting cast, from Baby June to the Striptease Trio (led by to the hilarious Alison Fraser as Tessie Tura)to the Cow's Ass, is spot on.
The production itself, directed by librettist Arthur Laurents, and which returns to the stage after a limited run as part of the Encores series this past summer, is strong and standard. After so many revivals it can at times feel a bit like enjoying the leftovers of a five-star meal for the fourth night in a row. But it’s peppered with just enough exotic spice to retain its flavor. Perhaps my only problem lies with the original stuffed animal cast (also transferred from the Encores production) which has Patti carrying around a Chowzy-Wowzy direct from the sales bin at FAO Schwartz, and leaves poor Laura Benanti singing "Little Lamb" to a Muppet wrapped in a shmata. That might have cut it at City Center, but I mean come now...People spend good money in the thee-A-tah, they wanna see live farm animals! Cough up a few extra bucks a week and give the girl a shittin’ lamb to sing to, won’t you? She’s on Brawt-WAY, for cryin’ out loud! (Bernadette had a real lamb…)