Theatrical vultures were to be found hovering over the new Broadway production of Gypsy ever since it was announced that Bernadette Peters - New York's perennial ingénue - was to play Mama Rose (the monster matriarch of the Broadway musical). It seemed casting against type and sense, just as Michael Crawford's misplaced return to Broadway in Dance of the Vampires represented pride before a fall when it opened last autumn and found the star eaten alive by the same vultures.
I have to confess that I was amongst the carnivores on both occasions, relishing the collapse of a star's supreme vanity in the case of the latter but more fearful in the case of the former, because there's no real pleasure to be had from witnessing the humiliation of a real talent or a musical of acknowledged greatness running aground.
Real, raw anguish
But that wasn't to count either on British director Sam Mendes' ability to wrench the real, raw anguish of drama out of both the show and his star, or on that star's brave embrace of a different range to her acting palette. Back at the end of March, I went to Gypsy's very first preview at the Schubert Theatre, which may have been a little unfair - but given that, on Broadway, they charge top dollar (in this case, now one hundred of them!) from the very first performance the curtain goes up, the show needed to be ready.
And already you could see a great performance taking shape. From the moment that Peters strides down the side aisle with her immortal shout to her daughter auditioning onstage, "Sing Out, Louise!", she claims the part as her own. I have never been too enamoured of this diva's fragile, waif-like singing voice, but this time it sounds as much an expression of the character as it does of the actress. She wouldn't be able to sing, really, or she'd have been a star herself, instead of living this tacky, tawdry showbiz life vicariously through her daughters, starting low in vaudeville and sinking lower to burlesque.
Combining vulnerability and grit to an unusual degree, Peters' is a Mama Rose that has the customary toughness but also the haunting underlying tragedy of a woman who never made it centre stage, until (in one of the paradoxes of this alternately musically gorgeous and psychologically grim show) she became the subject of a musical herself.
There's only a handful of musicals that can lay claim to sheer perfection, and Gypsy is in that hallowed set that also includes Guys and Dolls, She Loves Me and Sweeney Todd. In fact, it may be the best of them all, with Jule Styne's brassy score, Stephen Sondheim's masterfully witty and concise lyrics, and Arthur Laurents' superb book. Sam Mendes mercifully backs off from deconstructing it, but gives it a spare but generous theatricality that proves, once again, that he is one of the great stage directors of our time, as equally at home with Chekhov and Shakespeare as he was on his last dramatic outing, when he paired Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night as his valedictory productions at London's Donmar Warehouse, as he now is with Gypsy.
Transcendent & sensational
It's another Brit, however, David Leveaux (a former associate director under Mendes' Donmar directorship), who's responsible for the most transcendent and sensational revival of this or any recent Broadway season, recreating but also expanding his Donmar Warehouse staging of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's Nine (at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre) to produce a show that is quite simply breathtaking in its assurance and sheer stylishness.
As originally directed and choreographed on Broadway by Tommy Tune in 1982, this was always a musical about overwhelming style - but some saw it then as a triumph of style over content. Leveaux's production - with the tremendous Spanish movie star Antonio Banderas in the lead role of the Italian film director Guido Contini caught in a swirl of the women, from wife to mother, muse and mistress, who claim his attentions - also brings out the haunting agony of a man who's life is spiralling out of control.
Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, Banderas shines with terror even as this production drips with glamour. It's as if Follies is being replayed in Europe. "Here they come, those beautiful girls!" goes the number in the Sondheim musical, but here, too, a staircase witnesses the descent of the women in Guido's life. This time, however, instead of a reunion of former Follies girls, the reunion is in the director's tortured mind.
Unlike poor Larry Lamb - completely out of his depth vocally and physically in the Donmar version - Banderas has the charisma, charm, looks and voice to be totally persuasive. And he's surrounded by a stunning company whose attentions on him are therefore entirely believable.
Jane Krakowski (the actress, best known as man-eating secretary Elaine in TV's Ally McBeal, who forewent her West End debut in Fuddy Meers to get a jump on rehearsals for Nine), as his mistress, makes an absolutely unbelievable entrance (and even more unbelievable exit) that surely qualifies as the most extraordinary theatrical effect since The Phantom of the Opera's falling chandelier.
Chita Rivera, as the French film producer Liliane La Fleur, eager to get Guido back to work, shows why she justifiably qualifies as a Broadway legend. Elsewhere, young film actress Mary Stuart Masterson is a haunting study in quiet, calm hurt as wife Luisa, and Laura Benanti, as Guido's actress muse Claudia, has a simply gorgeous voice.
Not so urbane
Finally, the literally last-minute reprieve for Urban Cowboy - a musical that opened to devastating reviews on a Thursday, and posted the next day that it would close on Saturday - provoked the only sense of drama the whole night when I saw what was supposed to be the last performance.
At the curtain call, director Lonny Price took to the stage to acknowledge the audience's wild applause - Broadway may relish the makings of a flop, but it also likes cheering an underdog - and then told a stunned audience, and even more relieved cast, that actually the show had the best producers in the world, and was to go on. It was sheer theatre, even if a little contrived - I felt paradoxically bad for the cast, who had just given their all for a performance that they thought was to be their last, only to discover that their anguish was misplaced and they had jobs after all! But I couldn't help thinking, too, that this scene would be played again, but without the reprieve this time, again in a few weeks' time.
A painfully weak adaptation of the Travolta film, Urban Cowboy has a bucking, mechanical bull centre stage but is all bull itself. Though poster boy Matt Cavenaugh rides it with appeal - shirt open to reveal a six-pack so hard you could use it to cut bread on - the show falls off frequently.