By TERRY TEACHOUT
Stephen Sondheim turned 78 last Saturday. I expect he's feeling pretty good about it, too, considering that the current season has seen the first Broadway revival of "Sunday in the Park With George" and the release of Tim Burton's extraordinary film version of "Sweeney Todd." A birthday boy can never get enough shiny toys, though, so I'm happy to report that Mr. Sondheim is spending the week unwrapping superb stagings of two of his very best shows.
The production of "Gypsy" that opened on Broadway last night is the same one that I reviewed when it ran for three weeks last July at City Center, so I needn't say much beyond this: No matter how long you live, you'll never see a more exciting or effective revival of a golden-age musical. Everything you've heard about Patti LuPone's performance as Mama Rose, the stage mother from hell, is true -- she's so ferociously compelling that you'll have to remind yourself to breathe between songs -- but part of what makes this production so special is that the rest of the cast is just as memorable. I doubt there's been a better Louise than Laura Benanti, who starts out as Rose's mousy little daughter, then turns herself before your astonished eyes into Gypsy Rose Lee, the world's most glamorous stripper. Boyd Gaines is no less fine in the ungratefully self-effacing role of Herbie, Mama Rose's lover, while Leigh Ann Larkin brings off the even more challenging task of making a strong impression as June, Louise's sister.
The show itself is a miracle, one of the top contenders for the title of Best Musical Ever. The songs, with lyrics by Mr. Sondheim and music by Jule Styne, are classics one and all, as are Jerome Robbins's impeccably theatrical dances. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book of "Gypsy," has staged this revival, and his knowing hand is everywhere in evidence: Thanks in large part to his guidance, each member of the cast finds the emotional heart of each scene.
"This is as good as it gets," I overheard someone say as the audience filed out of the St. James Theatre on Tuesday. He got that right.
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Mark Lamos has done almost as well by CenterStage's revival of "A Little Night Music" as Mr. Laurents has by "Gypsy," in part for one of the same reasons: His cast is all but unimprovable. Led by Barbara Walsh, one of the stars of John Doyle's much-admired Broadway revival of "Company," Mr. Lamos's ensemble of singing actors strips away the mirrored surfaces of Mr. Sondheim's lyrics and shows us the hard kernels of honesty that lie within. "A Little Night Music" may sound like a frothy waltz-time operetta, but its real subject is romantic disillusion, and in song after song we are invited to contemplate unpalatable truths about the "dirty business" of love: Men are stupid, men are vain/Love's disgusting, love's insane. Only through the stoic acceptance that comes with maturity do the characters find their way to more or less happy endings, and even then you go home wondering what the future holds in store for them.
Mr. Lamos makes the most of the pointed ironies of Mr. Sondheim's brilliant songs and Hugh Wheeler's wry book. Everyone in the cast is on the director's acerbic wavelength, starting with Ms. Walsh, who is mouth-puckeringly tart (think Eve Arden) as Desirée Armfeldt, the glamorous actress-of-a-certain-age who now longs for the comforts of a husband-equipped home. She turns "Send in the Clowns" into a throat-catching lament for the lost hopes of youth, just as Kate Baldwin finds the tonic bitterness at the heart of "Every Day a Little Death" and Sarah Uriarte Berry sings "The Miller's Son" with a sawtooth edge of rage. But Mr. Lamos takes care not to let things get too sour: I've never seen a sexier production of "A Little Night Music," or a funnier one.
I was much taken with Riccardo Hernández's set, which suggests a near-empty house whose occupants are in the process of moving on to other things. Wayne Barker has arranged Mr. Sondheim's complex score for an eight-piece orchestra, which is cutting a bit too close to the bone: I wish CenterStage had found room in its tiny pit for a second violin and a viola. That, however, is my only quarrel with this exemplary, deeply satisfying production.
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Is there a more promising playwright in America than Itamar Moses? "The Four of Us," his latest play, delighted me when I saw it in San Diego last season, and now Off Broadway audiences can revel in this crisply witty study of a pair of up-and-coming young writers (Gideon Banner and Michael Esper) whose friendship is threatened when one of them hits the celebrity jackpot while the other is still struggling to find himself. Pam MacKinnon, who directed the in-the-round staging that the Old Globe presented in 2007, has done a nice job of reworking that production for the Manhattan Theatre Club's three-quarter-round performance space: David Zinn's simple set consists of four doors and an open stage that gives Mr. Banner and Mr. Esper plenty of room to play out their elaborate dance of envy and affection. If only Broadway were still a hospitable place for new plays as good as this one!