BootLeg Betty

BetteBack December 12, 1993: Bette Midler, Center Stage; Belting It As Mama Rose In CBS’s Remake Of `Gypsy’

The Washington Post
Bette Midler, Center Stage; Belting It As Mama Rose In CBS’s Remake Of `Gypsy
December 12, 1993 | Tom Shales

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Not many Christmas trees will be lit up brighter than Bette Midler in “Gypsy,” the new television adaptation of the great 1959 Broadway musical. Midler gives one of her knock-’em-dead, all-or-nothing performances; even when it isn’t quite right it seems somehow, well, quite right.

Midler is following in many a famous footstep; other actresses who have played the part of Mama Rose, the mother of superstripper Gypsy Rose Lee, include Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly. But the definitive Rose was of course the first, Ethel Merman, whose performance was a memorably defiant tour de force.

The crucial moment in the new version, which CBS airs tonight at 8 on Channel 9, probably comes midway through the show. According to the plot, loosely based on the stripper’s memoirs, Mama Rose and her vaudeville troupe have just hit rock bottom and hit it hard, the chorus boys having deserted them and Rose’s favored daughter, June, having eloped.

Rose summons all her resolve and determines to make her neglected daughter, Louise, the star. It’s at this point she sings the most inspired and durable song in Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim‘s socko score: “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Roses,” essentially a parody of all the picker-upper songs ever written, but with an ironic acidic edge.

Midler knocks it out of the park. She does it justice and then some. Simply speaking, it’s goose pimple time. Midler may not quite have Merman’s amazing ability to be poignant even while at full throttle, but she does put the number over with a very big bang.

A high point like this can make low points seem insignificant, and this production has its share of weaknesses.

The late Emile Ardolino, who directed, chose a cautious approach. This “Gypsy” is very much a filmed play, hewing closely to the original Arthur Laurents book, though not shot on a stage in front of an audience. As a result, there sometimes seems to be a curious veil over the show that the performers must work hard to break through.

Adhering so closely to the book means that this is a truly authentic “Gypsy” that can be rerun unto eternity and give people an accurate version of the original (at this it’s much better than the 1962 movie with Russell). But it also means that the show comes across as somewhat dated, even a bit clunky. The decision to include at considerable length all of the hackneyed vaudeville routines that Rose devises for her offspring seems a mistake.

On the other hand, as the musical “Gypsy” was in part a tribute to the vaudeville and burlesque of another era, so this new version of “Gypsy” can be seen as a lively memorial to the musical theater, which has never seen days as golden as the era that “Gypsy” capped. This is not just a production but an act of preservation.

Midler, to her credit, gets all the comedy and all the drama out of the character of Rose, and most of the pathos too. Rose is loud, pushy, abrasive, coarse – the mother of all stage mothers. But you have to love her for the show to succeed, and Midler works that particular wonder.

At times, however, her performance verges into the grotesque. She’ll strike a pose that unfortunately brings to mind Gloria Swanson descending the staircase at the end of “Sunset Boulevard.” She looks garish and demented.

Among the weak spots in the production is the odd casting of Peter Riegert as Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering manager and would-be suitor. The part appears to have been beefed up so Riegert can do more singing than Herbie usually does, but why??? Riegert is so stilted in some scenes he’s practically robotic.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast comes through. Cynthia Gibb is touching and gorgeous as the ignored Louise, though her transformation into a striptease artist is not particularly believable. Jennifer Beck is sweet as her pampered sister, June.

Edward Asner plays Rose’s skinflint father, a part that is one scene and only a few lines long; Christine Ebersole has a merry time as seasoned stripper Tessie Tura, who doesn’t show up until the final half-hour or so; Michael Jeter has a mere cameo as Mr. Goldstone, small-time impresario; and Andrea Martin, one of the noble comic actresses of our time, niftily magnifies the small role of a producer’s secretary.

Some of Jerome Robbins‘s original staging and choreography have been retained. But don’t believe those who say this is 100 percent faithful to 1959. The original show included an audacious production number in which Minsky’s saluted Christmas, with strippers in strategically placed ornaments and lights. It was eliminated from the 1962 film, and even 34 years after the Broadway original, that satiric touch is apparently still considered too irreverent for general audiences.

Instead we get Minsky’s salutes the Garden of Eden.

All the songs were retained, however, including “Together, Wherever We Go,” cut from the 1962 film after its initial release. Gibb does an especially touching job on “Little Lamb,” the birthday song of a girl whose mother won’t tell her how old she really is because it’s bad for business.

Most of the effects are theatrical rather than cinematic. In the original show, Louise, June and the chorus boys grow up before the audience’s eyes; while strobe lights flash and the kids do their hokey act, older versions of the characters replace the younger ones. Ardolino duplicates this but then mars it by superimposing the names of cities visited by the troupe.

“Gypsy” rests on Midler’s shoulders, and she carries that weight splendidly. From an early moment when she announces with a huge grin that her daughter is going to be a star, to the shot of her mimicking her daughters’ routines in the wings, to the tumultuous, cathartic finale of “Rose’s Turn,” Midler glows, shines, radiates.

It’s a pity that more of the classic Broadway musicals haven’t been faithfully preserved on film or tape. The pay-cable networks seemed interested in this at first, then gave it up in favor of sexier, snappier fare. CBS is upholding the honor of broadcast network television tonight by attempting something HBO would never do.

Even if its ratings turn out to be not so hot, it’s likely that more people will see “Gypsy” tonight than have seen it in all its previous incarnations. Chances are they will have a helluva good time. Unarguably they will be seeing a helluva good show.

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