The CBS version of 'Gypsy' is best Bette in a long time

December 10, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Gypsy" isn't the first Broadway musical that comes to mind when thinking of holiday TV fare.

It's about the backstage mother of all backstage mothers, a woman with enough compulsions and obsessions to be the life's work of any psychiatrist.

But "Gypsy" is about dreams. And dreams are the stuff of Christmas.

The TV "Gypsy," which premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on WBAL (Channel 11), also has Bette Midler as its star. And there aren't enough superlatives for what she does with the queen-size role of Mama Rose.

Her timing should be studied by military leaders. Her delivery should be stud- ied by the post office. Her pure energy and electricity have almost the same voltage as a live performance. And that is a minor miracle in a medium that tends to flatten and shrink everything it touches.

CBS' "Gypsy," a show with genuine show-stopper numbers in it, will send shivers up your spine. "Everything's Coming Up Roses," one of the most ironic songs ever written for the stage, will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The song and the singer are that good.

The rest of the cast isn't bad, either. Peter Riegert, as the long-suffering agent, Herbie, replays some of his nicest moves as the Pickle Man in "Crossing Delancey." The world even survives his singing duet with Midler on "Small World." OK, it almost survives Riegert's singing.

Andrea Martin, as a secretary to a Broadway producer, produces a gem of a performance -- all angles, wit and sarcasm. And Edward Asner, as Rose's father, replays some of his best moves as the immigrant baker from way, way back in "Rich Man, Poor Man."

The weakest link may be Cynthia Gibb, who plays Louise, the daughter who comes to be known as Gypsy Rose Lee. Gibb is strong enough to hold her own in scenes with Midler, though. So, how weak is that?

CBS' "Gypsy" is Midler, Midler, Midler. And she's in a form we haven't seen for maybe 10 or 15 years, before all those second-rate movies. For TV purists, she's even better than when she sang to Johnny Carson during his "Tonight Show" farewell.

The pure dynamism of Midler's performance can make you forget that this is really a show about what a mother did to her daughters -- like dragging them through dingy vaudeville houses and making them play 8-year-olds when they were 18. Mama Rose led her "successful" daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee, straight from tap shoes to stripping in burlesque houses -- from child to sexual adventuress, with no stops for a life in between.

Back in 1959, when the show was first produced on Broadway, stripping was a career path for women. The distinction, we're told in CBS' "Gyspy," is that Mama Rose's daughter is a "lady" of the stage --whatever that means.

The good news is that such thinking is as dead as burlesque and vaudeville, in all but a few places ---- such as in scripts like this, which don't stray too far from the original.

But very much alive for three hours Sunday are Midler's electrifying moments -- at least a dozen of them. In the end, CBS' "Gypsy" is more about one wonderful performer and the miracle she works on TV in 1993 than it is about Mama Rose and her kids back in the days of vaudeville and burlesque. And Midler doesn't have to take off one glove to make the miracle happen.

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