Patti Lupone rules Broadway in “Gypsy”

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Patti LuPone is the toast of Broadway right now, and with good reason.

Her turn as “Mama Rose” in the current revival of Gypsy is drawing comparison’s to Ethel Merman‘s original characterization of the stage mother of all stage mothers. I’ve always been envious that my mother saw the original run of Gypsy, but not anymore. (Well, at least not as much as before.) I think Ben Brantley of The New York Times summed up Lupone’s performance beautifully.

“When Ms. LuPone delivers “Rose’s Turn,” she’s building a bridge for an audience to walk right into one woman’s nervous breakdown. There is no separation at all between song and character, which is what happens in those uncommon moments when musicals reach upward to achieve their ideal reasons to be.”

And that’s what I love so much about musical theater – those moments when the actor, the character and the song all merge together into one utterly captivating entity. It’s a combination of the strength of the performance and of the material. (For the record, I did not experience any moment like that when I saw David Hasselhoff in Jeckyl and Hyde.) These moments are why I rail against stunt-casting. I don’t want to see performers who are a curiousity; I want to see performers who make me get lost in the show.

I had been wanting to see Patti LuPone in a Broadway show for ages. I saw 12 zillion Evita commercials when I was a kid, and she was always this Broadway great that I had never seen.

So, I’m thrilled to have finally seen her in all her greatness. Of course, over the years I’ve seen my fair share of great performances. And I’m going to indulge myself by reminiscing about a few of them.

Ellen Greene Little Shop of Horrors

The original off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors is still the funniest show I’ve ever seen. And even among the absolutely stellar cast, Ellen Greene stood out as Audrey, the waifish bombshell dating the sadistic dentist. Between her plaintive yearning in “Somewhere that’s Green” and her bombast in “Suddenly Seymour”, she was utterly appealing.

Audra McDonald110 in the Shade

I’d been trying to see Audra McDonald in a show for years, and finally got around to it in last summer’s revival of 110 in the Shade. Audra McDonald, an insanely beautiful woman successfully embodied a character that was supposed to be plain.

Now that is some acting, because this woman is not plain.

And then there’s her singing, which I cannot even begin to describe. So I’ll just say that she’s really, really good.

Lea DelariaOn the Town

I never saw Ethel Merman live, but I did see what could only be her spirit incarnate, when I saw Lea Delaria in the mediocre late 90s revival of On the Town. She played Hildy, the cabbie, and brought down the house with her show-stopping number, “I Can Cook, Too.”

I first saw Delaria sing on Arsenio, in the early 90s. (She also said, of Hillary, on that show, “Finally in this country, we have a First Lady that you could boink.”) I knew she could sing. But I didn’t know that she could take over the stage. It was so wrong that she didn’t get a Tony nod for that performance.

Chita Rivera Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life

The original material in Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life was dreck. But when Chita was reminiscing about the choreographers with whom she worked over the years or reenacting her West Side Story audition…Oh. My. God. Capitvating doesn’t begin to describe it. And part of what made the show so much fun was how much of a love-fest it was. She was just having fun basking in the adulation of the audience. And why not? She’s Chita Rivera!

I had seen her once before, playing Roxie in the Las Vegas production of Chicago. But seeing her wax nostalgic about her great roles made me yearn to time travel and see her back in the day.

Jennifer HollidayDreamgirls

OK, I’m cheating here. I didn’t see this show. I only saw this performance on the Tony Awards.

But I think it counts, because I can tell that this had to be one of the best Broadway performances ever. And Frank Rich of The New York Times backs me up:

“Shortly after that, Curtis departs, and Miss Holliday just keeps riding wave after wave of painful music -clutching her stomach, keeling over, insisting that the scoundrel who has dumped her is ”the best man I’ll ever know.” The song can end only when Mr. Bennett matches the performer’s brilliance with a masterstroke of his own – and it’s a good thing that Act I of ”Dreamgirls” ends soon thereafter. If the curtain didn’t fall, the audience would probably cheer Jennifer Holliday until dawn.”

And then he goes on to compare her performance with Ethel Merman’s Mama Rose. I guess there’s something compelling about a nervous breakdown immortalized in song. (If there’s ever a musical about Jessica Savitch, it will be another Tony Award-winner.)

Well, I believe that’s enough gushing for one sitting. This is only a few of the great performances I’ve seen, but it’s a good sampling. What performances have – be they Broadway or otherwise – have stopped you in your tracks?

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