BetteBack: Midler In The Performance Of Her Career?

New York Times
December 10, 1993

TV Weekend; Midler Takes Her Turn In Mama Rose‘s Spot

Correction AppendedEverything’s coming up roses? As far as Bette Midler is concerned, absolutely. An extensive concert tour, “Experience the Divine,” has reaped rave reviews and lively ticket sales. She won an Emmy Award for singing to Johnny Carson on his next-to-last “Tonight Show” appearance. And now she looks like a shoo-in for another Emmy for her powerhouse, all-systems-are-go performance as Mama Rose in CBS‘s splendid re-creation of the 1959 Broadway musical “Gypsy.” The special three-hour broadcast, Sunday at 8 P.M., perfectly defines the concept of event television.

The first Mama Rose was Ethel Merman, using her last appearance in a Broadway show to crown a legendary career with her most memorable performance. In the process, she bequeathed a fearsome hurdle to all subsequent productions. A movie version of “Gypsy,” starring Rosalind Russell, never stood a chance. Some stage productions, most notably those starring Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly, held their own admirably. But the special Merman imprint lingered as a kind of theatrical Everest that would never be scaled in quite the same way again. Until now.

Miss Midler appears to have been made for this role of primal stage mother. Rose is a monster, pure and simple, trying to realize her own frustrated ambitions through the incessant pushing and manipulating of her daughters, June and Louise. In pursuit of her dream, a rather puny fantasy of vaudeville stardom, Rose is shameless, lying, scheming, swiping the silverware from restaurants, sneaking Chinese food into cheap hotel rooms. Ordinary life may be peachy for some people, some humdrum people, but not Rose, she warns in one song.

The woman is anything but lovable. But it is the genius of Arthur Laurents’s book, Jule Styne‘s music and Stephen Sondheim‘s lyrics that her sheer energy and determination can leave audiences in a state approaching awe. From the moment she storms into a Seattle audition for child performers shouting, “Sing out, Louise, sing out!,” Miss Midler’s Rose exudes enough brass to satisfy the most demanding of Merman fans. This Rose can toss off wisecracks with finesse and belt a lyric into the rafters.

She also reveals a more complex side of herself in the show’s quieter moments, more of the sad woman who has been rejected by three husbands and even by her own parents. By the time she gets to “Rose’s Turn,” the show’s powerfully bitter finale, Miss Midler has made Rose her very own. The audience can’t help but agree with Louise, now a star as Gypsy Rose Lee, when she tells Mama, “You really would’ve been something.”

Clearly directed with love by the late Emile Ardolino (“Dirty Dancing,” “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ “), the lavish production is painstaking, from Bonnie Walker’s re-creations of Jerome Robbins‘s original choreography to Bob Mackie’s snazzy costumes. The supporting cast is strong, from major roles (Peter Riegert as Herbie the manager, Cynthia Gibb as Louise, Jennifer Beck as Dainty June, and Christine Ebersole as the stripper Tessie Tura) to choice cameos (Edward Asner as Rose’s father, Michael Jeter as Mr. Goldstone, Andrea Martin as a show-business secretary).

In the end, Rose just wants to be noticed. Miss Midler makes sure of that in the performance of her career. So far. Gypsy CBS, Sunday at 8 P.M. (Channel 2 in New York.) Directed by Emile Ardolino; book by Arthur Laurents; music by Jule Styne; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; choreography by Jerome Robbins; director of photography, Ralf Bode; editor, William Reynolds; costumes by Bob Mackie; production designer, Jack DeGovia; produced by Emile Ardolino and Cindy Gilmore for RHI Entertainment Inc.; Robert Halmi Sr., Craig Zadan, Neil Meron and Bonnie Bruckheimer, executive producers. Rose . . . Bette Midler Herbie . . . Peter Riegert Louise . . . Cynthia Gibb Pop . . . Edward Asner Tessie Tura . . . Christine Ebersole Mr. Goldstone . . . Michael Jeter Miss Cratchitt . . . Andrea Martin Dainty June . . . Jennifer Beck

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