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Stage Door Theater Reviews: In Praise Of Patti LuPone, Gypsy, And South Pacific

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It is the role she was born to play. Patti LuPone's turn as Mama Rose in Gypsy is the definitive performance. It is raw, electric and musical theater at its best. And that's no small trick, given the demands of the part. Gypsy, suggested by the memoirs of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, is an extraordinary tale of drive, show biz and the ultimate stage mother. Now playing at the St. James Theatre, the current revival dazzles. From the moment LuPone marches onstage belting out Rose's well-known charge -- "sing out, Louise!" — she's got us.

Gypsy's enduring appeal is thanks to Jule Styne's stirring music, Stephen Sondheim's witty lyrics and deft storytelling. It begins in the Twenties, as two young girls, June and Louise, are dragged from one vaudeville theater to the next. They are, after all, the family meal ticket. Rose, "a frontier woman without a frontier," has dreams of fame and fortune, and believes daughter June, a pretty girl with a good voice, can deliver. Her attention to her is both slavish and comical. She literally kicks in doors to assure June will get interviews and billings. Louise is simply part of the background.

In her quest for success, Rose champions and cripples her children; the family saga is almost Shakespearean in its primal longing for attention and validation. The girls want maternal love, dependable Herbie (Boyd Gaines) longs to be Rose's fourth husband, while Rose has one monomaniacal focus: the bright lights.

Eventually, Louise (Laura Benanti) is forced to step in when June (Leigh Ann Larkin), balking at Rose's control, abandons the act. Gradually, a shy, quiet girl transforms herself into a burlesque queen. Her initial dive into stripping -- ala the "You've Gotta Get a Gimmick" number — is played to perfection by the three aging strippers: Alison Fraser, Lenora Nemetz and Marilyn Caskey.

Benanti's Louise morphs into Gypsy Rose Lee with real charm. So distinct was her wit and elegant striptease, that H.L. Mencken coined the term "ecdysiast" to describe her high-class act. (June went onto a respectable acting career as June Havoc.) As Gypsy's star rises, Rose's fades. And it's at this consummately defining moment in "Rose's Turn," that Rose faces her demons. LuPone's delivery is magnificent here and in the earlier show-stopper "Everything's Coming Up Roses." Happily for LuPone, the rest of her cast is first-rate. So are James Youmans' sets and Martin Pakledinaz' costumes. Together, they make Broadway magic.

A second musical classic, South Pacific, hasn't seen a revival on the Great White Way for 60 years. The current incarnation at Lincoln Center is as upbeat as Gypsy is dark. Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical takes place on a South Pacific island during World War II. While South Pacific, staged in 1949, has a decidedly post-war optimism, it also makes a plea for racial tolerance.

When nurse Nellie Forbush (Kelli O'Hara) falls for Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot), a French planter who has fathered two children by a native woman, she's forced to confront her own prejudices. Similarly, when handsome Marine lieutenant Joe Cable (Matthew Morrison) falls for a Polynesian girl (Li Jun Li), he laments that he cannot bring her home. In the moving "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," Rodgers and Hammerstein address the issue of bigotry head-on, a daring move at the time.

At heart, South Pacific is a glorious paean to romance. Can anyone hear the lush "Some Enchanted Evening" without being seduced by the promise of destiny? Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot have real chemistry, though her emotional ambivalence is beautifully rendered. Bartlett Sher's direction is lively and sensitive, and the music sublime. And the exquisite lighting by Donald Holder makes us all long for Bali Ha'i.

For some, distant shores beckon less than current affairs. Mort Sahl is the comic credited with pioneering a new style of stand-up, paving the way for Lenny Bruce and Jon Stewart. His trademark was appearing on stage with a newspaper, and he satirized presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton. At 81, he's still going strong. Catch a comic legend May 10 at B.B. King Blues Club. Mr. President, prepare to be Bushwhacked.

Finally, a shout-out to Nicole Kafka, who performed April 23 at the West Bank Café. The twist in the Deliciously Twisted show — she's a surgeon. Kafka weaves personal patter - love, heartbreak, dating - into her cabaret act, using favorite standards, such as "Don't Tell Mama," "I'm a Woman" and "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," to tell her story. And while she won't be giving up her day job, she's clearly having fun — and so is her audience.