LuPone makes it worth returning from a 'Gypsy' intermission

It was about 10 years ago that I realized I never needed to see "Gypsy" again. Oh, it's a glorious show, no doubt about that. Great score. (Thanks, Jule Styne). Superb lyrics. (Kudos, Mr. Sondheim). Exceptional book. (Congratulations, Arthur Laurents). It's also an amazingly meaty starring role for any actress able to deliver the goods with heart and gusto.

I saw Ethel Merman in the original Broadway production on one of the first trips I ever made to New York; the powerhouse performance of the Merm still blazes in my memory. Also vivid in my mind is a later, post-Broadway performance I saw her do in Los Angeles at the old Biltmore Theatre, in which the kilowatts had been seriously diminished. (The explanation came years later: It was during that Biltmore run that Merman learned she would not be doing the 1962 film version, which had been promised to her by the film's director, Mervyn LeRoy, news she later admitted "was the biggest heartbreak of my career.")

Subsequent Mama Roses I've witnessed include two who did later Broadway redos: Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters. (I wasn't yet a New Yorker when Angela Lansbury did her Tony-winning revival.) I've also seen the movies' Mama Rose (Rosalind Russell), TV's Rose (Bette Midler) and too many other variations through the years, in Los Angeles and Chicago as well as via several summer stock adaptations.

Enough! It's not that I don't have a deep appreciation for the show, only that as with "Hello, Dolly!" and "King Kong," I feel the need for an extended breather.

It partially explains why it's taken me two months to have a look at the current incarnation at the St. James Theatre with Patti LuPone as the indefatigable Rose. I'd always planned to see it eventually — who wouldn't be somewhat intrigued to see the take-no-prisoners LuPone playing the best take-no-prisoners role ever designed for musical theater? But I was pushed to bite the bullet because it's Tony season and time to mark that ballot.

All of which leads me to write words I never thought would be typed by me: I'm only sorry I waited so long to see "Gypsy" again. The show has never looked better: It zings, it sings, and it shines from start to finish. Further, LuPone, instead of just being good, is the best Mama Rose in my memory bank.

Granted, no one probably ever will match the brassy, bombastic vocal delivery of Merman in the role; with her also came the Merman legend, acquired from all those years of landmark shows she'd created such as "Anything Goes," "Panama Hattie," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Call Me Madam." But with LuPone playing the part, there is not only the amazing pipe power but also a shaded, multilayered characterization far beyond what Merman even attempted to deliver. LuPone's Mama Rose has flashes of kindness and vulnerability even when her fangs are out. She is, in fact, the only Mama Rose I've seen who makes it totally understandable why daughter Louise and Rose's boyfriend Herbie hang around her as long as they do. She's still a monster, but she's a magnificent one who is, at times, also alluring and likable.

LuPone, a sure cinch to win the Tony for best actress in a musical come June 15, is certainly the main attraction here. But happily, the entire show is a up to the high standard she sets. Boyd Gaines is excellent as Herbie, and Laura Benanti is first-rate as Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee.

Only one letdown for me: the delivery of the Styne-Sondheim song "All I Need Is the Girl," which can be a showstopper but seems totally superfluous this time around. Conversely, the number "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," which can get grating when seen once too often, is a total delight as delivered here by Alison Fraser, Lenora Nemetz and Marilyn Caskey.

But it's LuPone who must be seen. It's one of the great, blazing Broadway performances, past and present, right up there with Deanna Dunagan in "August: Osage County," Hugh Jackman in "The Boy From Oz," Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon," Zoe Caldwell in "Master Class," John Malkovich in "Burn This" and that handful of others who eventually go away but refuse to be forgotten.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host and anchor of Turner Classic Movies.