Patti LuPone has pitch problems. Enunciation is not her strong suit. She likes to mispronounce vowels, and she has a habit of second-guessing composers. In another performer these might be considered flaws, but in Patti's case they're more like hallmarks. Poor diction? Casual adherence to melody as written? Nasal patches that shift without warning into overpowering blasts of volume? Gotta be Patti LuPone!
I don't expect that any of this is news to you, assuming you know who Patti LuPone is in the first place (I was so convinced of her diva status that I only recently discovered she's not as well known as, say, Cher, except in certain circles). Those of you familiar with the woman should be able to recognize that I'm not so much criticizing Patti as describing her. Oh, I've been tempted, time and again, to write Patti off for all of the above-mentioned tics, but I can't quite do it. A voice that powerful can't be written off, in the first place, and there is a definite need for Patti's particular brand of star quality in the musical theatre. In times of famine, when exciting new musicals are few and far between, diva-worship is sometimes all that keeps fans going. And when new musicals turn out to be the sort of shows where fidelity to the material is no virtue -- where the music is banal and the lyrics are inane -- a leading lady with personality to burn might be just what the show doctor ordered.
But what about a show where book, lyrics and music combine to tell a story with sophistication and intelligence? What about a show where the lead role is a character of great complexity and depth; a role in which an actress can and should lose herself completely, putting all her talents to work in the service of the character and the show itself? That, I would argue, is a show in which you might not want to cast Patti LuPone.
The specific show I have in mind is, of course, Gypsy, and your reaction to the current Encores! Summer Stars production will likely depend on which you love more, Gypsy or Patti LuPone. If you rank them in the order they appear on the Encores! poster -- LUPONE first, and GYPSY second -- you're likely to walk away very satisfied, because there's no question which takes priority in this production. I set myself up for disappointment by foolishly hoping for more of a GYPSY/LUPONE experience, and by falling for the claim that this production was "fully staged," and jumping at the chance to see Boyd Gaines as Herbie and Laura Benanti as Louise. The extent to which the show is "fully" staged depends on what you're comparing it to, I suppose. It's more elaborate than a typical Encores! production in that everybody's off-book and wearing real costumes, and there's a set, but the space isn't used effectively and the musical numbers, especially the vaudeville numbers, are poorly staged. At the performance I saw (the second preview, I note in the interest of fairness, although I'm not convinced it should make a difference), the orchestra stumbled alarmingly through the overture's signature moments and mistimed bump-and-grind rimshots throughout the show (the strange and disorienting consequence of having an onstage orchestra that can't see the performers). Arthur Laurents's direction is about what you'd expect from a book-writer directing his own work, with too much emphasis on the book scenes, too little feeling for the dramatic function of the songs, and sluggish pacing overall.
LuPone's costars do well enough, not that it matters. Alison Fraser, as Tessie Tura, ensures that the show has at least one memorable characterization that locates and lands every laugh in the right place. Better direction (and maybe a longer rehearsal period) could have gotten really solid work out of Benanti and Gaines, but they know they're strictly supporting players here, and they perform accordingly. Gaines does too much shouting in Herbie's final scene, and Benanti overcompensates when Patti's not onstage; as Louise, she gets two of the best and most poignant punchlines in the Sondheim canon, "...I wonder how old I am" and "...just Momma, three ducks, five canaries, a mouse, two monkeys, one father, six turtles and me," but she oversells both, adding an extra beat and a sob (in the first case) or a shrug (in the second) to let you know it's funny. The child performers are a bit too competent, and too eager to let you know it; instead of squirming with appropriate discomfort, the folks in the orchestra section responded to Baby June's first number as if they were watching a taping of Star Search. Louise's "triumphant" strip sequence in Act Two is similarly lacking in seediness. And there are plenty of small mysteries along the way, like: what's with the weird lamb puppet? I mean, are we supposed to assume Herbie bought Louise an expensive fake lamb, or are we supposed to pretend it's a real lamb, or what? And: why does Tulsa have a New York accent?
But smart audience members aren't there for any of that stuff, anyway; the main attraction is Patti LuPone as Rose -- or, more accurately, Patti LuPone as PATTI LUPONE as Rose. She brings all her trademark tics to this role, and if you've always wanted to hear "Some People" sung with lots of brass and little precision, or longed to hear "roses" (as in "everything's coming up...") pronounced "ro-zass," this is your chance. But Patti's Rose has no charm, at least not in the world onstage -- she's always looking for a chance to charm the audience, but it usually comes at the expense of the show. She has no chemistry with Herbie (or anyone else); there's no sugar in her renditions of "Small World" or "You'll Never Get Away from Me." She's too self-aware to be so single-minded, and too static to grow (or shrink) as the story dictates. LuPone's Rose goes full steam ahead until she breaks down, not because it's dramatically inevitable but because it's time to end the show. And that breakdown doesn't happen during "Rose's Turn," but in the brief dialogue scene that follows, making "Rose's Turn" just another showcase. I suppose the people who leaped to their feet on cue at the end of the number got what they came for, but I was still hoping for an emotional climax that came from within the show, and it left me cold. How can we be affected by the loss of control represented by "Rose's Turn" if the star's performance has been so undisciplined all along? When this Rose testifies to the power of "what I been holding down inside of me," you have to wonder, What might that be, exactly?
Did New York need another "fully staged" and fully realized production of Gypsy? Probably not. Was I greedy to want the show to thrill me, instead of just the star? Possibly. And I should also say that, under the right circumstances, Patti has been known to embody a character without letting her own reputation get in the way; I had plenty of issues with John Doyle's production of Sweeney Todd, but LuPone's Mrs. Lovett wasn't one of them. But that's not really what she was invited to do here. And even if Patti really wanted to turn in a deep and selfless portrait of Momma Rose, she had an uphill battle -- against herself and against the venue, which is certainly not built for intimacy. (I thought I'd beat the Restricted View curse by dispatching the fiance to buy the tickets, but no such luck; even if this had been the most revelatory production in history, I'd have left grumpy, because sitting comfortably in my seat meant I could see about one-eighth of the stage, and very little happened in that area. Thanks, City Center, for a thoroughly frustrating experience, and for future reference, $50 is five times more than you should be charging for those awful mid-mezzanine seats.) The people around me seemed happy enough, and it's certainly possible that if you go, you'll have a real good time. I can only say that whether or not this Gypsy makes you feel good will depend on how you feel about the fact that, in this Gypsy, the biggest personality onstage isn't Momma Rose. It's Patti LuPone.
ETA: More posts about this version of Gypsy here, here, here and here.