NEW YORK -- Patti LuPone's up-and-down career couldn't have prepared her better for the role of Momma Rose in the new Broadway production of "Gypsy." In some way the casting was inevitable. But with so many illustrious predecessors, who could have imagined the result would be so breathtakingly one-of-a-kind?
This is not the brassy tour de force that we can reconstruct from the cast recording of Ethel Merman's patented original. And one shouldn't expect Angela Lansbury's tragicomic finesse, Tyne Daly's working-class realism or Bernadette Peters' sex-kittenish wiles, to cite the other previous Broadway Roses.
LuPone doesn't offer a fresh psychological diagnosis of the archetypal stage mother except to reveal her first and foremost as a creature hard-wired for applause. Deprived of an audience, she's perpetually on the hunt for the spotlight, even if it's ostensibly meant for her performing-seal daughters.
What distinguishes LuPone's accomplishment is the fiery fusion of music and drama that she pulls off with seemingly spontaneous expressiveness. Speech slides into song as naturally as water returns to air, and the ensuing rainbow of vocal color is like the proof of some rarely observed scientific law.
The production, which opened Thursday at the St. James Theatre under the direction of Arthur Laurents, the book's estimable super-senior author, isn't perfect. Occasionally, when the cast members (top-notch where it matters most) aren't performing Jerome Robbins' glorious choreography (reproduced by Bonnie Walker), the staging resembles a concert version in which they've been asked to arrange their own blocking.
Laurents, in short, isn't always adept at handling the tale he so creatively derived from the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. The storytelling is rather choppy in the first half. LuPone's scene with Pop (Bill Raymond), her naysaying dad, who won't give her the 88 bucks she needs to get her kids on the Orpheum Circuit, strangely misfires until she starts singing "Some People," the anthem decrying ordinary oblivion as a form of death.
The initial meeting between Rose and Herbie (Boyd Gaines, excellent as usual), was always too rushed. After a few seconds of banter, the two begin wondering about collaborating personally and professionally for the rest of their lives -- a leap that stretches credulity even in the anything-goes shorthand of musical comedy. Here, the scene is played so fast it practically skids.
Still, Rose is one of the great parental monsters, a figure whose epically misguided love makes her kin to King Lear and Mother Courage. Not that these comparisons are earned by Laurents' dramatic treatment alone. But when you add the sweeping theatricality of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and Jule Styne's music -- one of those proverbial desert island scores that could leave a castaway in utter bliss -- the very heartbeat of the protagonist can be heard racing.
This revival, which grew out of a 2007 Encores! Summer Stars offering at New York's City Center, circles around a distinctively American theme: the desire for a better, more glamorous future, complete with autograph hounds and nightly standing ovations. The production -- designed as a succession of suggested stages, dressing rooms and fleabag hotels by James Youmans -- floats with the surreal swiftness of a dream in which sighs turn instantly to showstoppers and an onstage orchestra dressed in dapper evening wear appears and disappears with a curtain's sway.
But it's not all a diaphanous display of razzle-dazzle. The mother-daughter drama is anchored by LuPone's masterfully maddening Momma and Laura Benanti's openhearted Louise. She, of course, is the young woman who discovers in stripteasing the talent that has eluded her all through a childhood of playing second fiddle to sister June (given a nice, sharp edge by Leigh Ann Larkin in the grown-up half of the role).
Benanti, who makes direct contact with the audience through her misty Audrey Hepburn-like eyes, lets us feel Louise's longing for a more stable family. And LuPone conveys the stark horror of a mother who refuses to be stranded in domestic hopelessness.
This time, however, the dilemma isn't just heartbreaking -- it's existential. The desperation of LuPone's "Rose's Turn," the tousled-hair finale in which she delivers the performance she has spent years trying to extract from her daughters, seems less like a nervous breakdown than the defiant act of a roughed-up survivor.
How consistently LuPone will be able to reach the heights she achieved with a house full of scribbling critics remains to be seen. Detractors will no doubt deride her lyric-swallowing diction and frilly swoops and swerves around notes.
But there's no gainsaying the awesome memory of her flirtatious "You'll Never Get Away From Me" duet with Gaines, the bulldozing brilliance of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and that climactic "Rose's Turn." What LuPone gives us is not self-satisfied showmanship but an X-ray of a shortchanged performer's soul.
On the Web
See a "Gypsy" photo gallery online at latimes.com/arts