Here’s one case where the television movie beats the big-screen film version.
The creators of the classic Broadway musical “Gypsy” disowned and condemned Mervin LeRoy’s 1962 Hollywood adaptation, with Rosalind Russell painfully miscast in the starring role Ethel Merman defined on the New York stage in 1959. And Russell’s co-stars, Karl Malden and Natalie Wood, weren’t exactly known for their song-and-dance abilities.
In show biz today, there’s only one singer and actress with enough brass and sass to match high-octane Ethel in her prime. And that’s the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler.
Giving a performance worthy of Broadway respect and an Emmy nomination, Midler feasts on the ambrosial role of indomitable Mama Rose in the rousing CBS presentation of “Gypsy,” strutting across TV screens at 7 p.m. Sunday on WBBM-Channel 2. The original theater team of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Jule Styne and author Arthur Laurents served the production as hands-on consultants.
Now in her late 40s, Midler has the perfect blend of energy and maturity to portray vaudeville’s ultimate stage mother, an insanely pushy divorcee who pours every ounce of her overflowing passion down the drain of unrealized dreams. Mama Rose would ruin any relationship to turn her marginally talented “babies” – daughters June and Louise – into stars. Her loyal but weary girls, who become young women stuck in a juvenile act during the Depression, wish Rose would give up and choose their nice manager as Husband No. 4.
Midler, who earned an Oscar nomination as a self-destructive pop singer in 1979’s “The Rose,” can turn a sappy ballad like “Wind Beneath My Wings” into a dramatic tour de force. When she sinks her choppers into such “Gypsy” doozies as “Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Together” and the show-stopping “Rose’s Turn,” it’s like Lady Macbeth cakewalking in a follow spot with a red-feather boa.
The guiding force behind the new, sparkling “Gypsy” comes from the perceptive and reverent direction of Oscar winner Emile Ardolino, who artfully preserves the spirit of a stage play within the confines of television. A choreographer and di rector whose hit films included “Dirty Dancing” and “Sister Act,” Ardolino died Nov. 20.
As the shy Louise, who ultimately blossoms as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Cynthia Gibb never emerges from Midler’s shadow. But Peter Riegert – an adequate singer as heartbroken Herbie, the sweet and suffering agent – provides a poignant counterpoint to La Bette’s brashness in their sad scenes of false hope. And the supporting players come through like the troupers they are.
If I could dream like Rose, I’d imagine this “Gypsy” on a huge movie screen with super stereo sound, or – better yet – live onstage at the Auditorium Theatre. Curtain up! Light the lights! But I take what I can get, so I’m glad we have the chance to enjoy Midler for three hours Sunday.