Midler In 'Gypsy'? You Bette-r Believe It

Posted: November 23, 1993

GYPSY

Bette Midler / Atlantic

* * * 1/2

There have been odd casting choices for Mama Rose - such as Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly - in past revivals of the brassy 1959 Broadway musical ''Gypsy."

The play is based on the true story of vaudeville-entertainer-turned- striptease-grande-dame Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister Baby June (Havoc). The central role of tenacious stage mother Mama Rose was originated on Broadway by the indomitable Ethel Merman, who cast such a dark and fearsome shadow it's a wonder anyone else ever dared take on the part.

Now Bette Midler has taken on Mama Rose in a new made-for-TV version of ''Gypsy" airing Dec. 12 on Channel 10. On paper, Midler's pushy personality seems a natural, and we relish watching her bowl over everything and everyone in sight.

But on the just-out soundtrack, Midler comes up a mite short, singing Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's "me first" anthems "Some People," ''Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" a little too sweetly, too tenderly, too dulcetly.

Midler's sometime love interest essayed by Peter Riegert (as manager Herbie) also seems toned down - a pushover next to Broadway original Jack Klugman's rough but loveable New Yawker - as the pair ruminates on "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away from Me."

That said, we should still welcome this new "Gypsy" with open arms. The score remains one of Broadway's boldest and best, rich with period show-biz flavor and dramatic plot/character development.

Even without Arthur Laurents' hard-bitten dialogue, you'll have no trouble following the story in bittersweet laments such as "If Momma Was Married" and "Little Lamb," the show-stopping "All I Need Is the Girl" and hilarious burlesque girls' lament "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."

A 35-piece orchestra - larger than the original pit band - brightens the original arrangements for the digital recording. The able supporting cast including Cynthia Gibb as Gypsy Rose and Jennifer Beck as June.

WASN'T THAT A TIME

The Weavers / Vanguard

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As another generation discovers and savors acoustic and folk music through ''MTV Unplugged," one of folk's most profound influences is chronicled on a new retrospective box set.

In the '50s, the Weavers laid the foundation for the '60s folk music revolutionaries: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and others. The Weavers' politically charged, socially aware tunes got the group blacklisted as radicals and Communists in 1952, destroying the Weavers' career. A 1955 reunion at Carnegie Hall sparked a triumphant comeback.

The Weavers' music still has awesome emotional and spiritual power - songs such as "Goodnight Irene," "If I Had a Hammer," "Wimoweh," "Study War No More," "Kumbaya," "This Land Is Your Land" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" ring with passion and commitment.

Tapping early recordings, the landmark 1955 Carnegie Hall concert and later work (after Pete Seeger left), this four-CD set shows this timeless act's power and influence - one still being felt, as in recent work by R.E.M. and Nanci Griffith.

The distinguished quartet (originally Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman) set an important example as it popularized folk music: One does not have to betray musical roots to achieve commercial and artistic success.

- ELLIS WIDNER

SWING BATTA SWING

K7 / (Tommy Boy)

* * 1/2

K7 used to be Kayel, the "K" in the Latin freestyle trio TKA. Now that freestyle is pretty much dead outside of New York and Miami, he has shrewdly reinvented himself as a hip-hopper.

The transformation has been so effective that he's got the current No. 1 rap single in Philadelphia, the suggestively titled "Come Baby Come." A reggae-flavored call-and-response rap, "Come Baby Come" is a bouncy homeboy's delight on the order of House of Pain's "Jump Around," Naughty by Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray" or Onyx's "Slam."

But, although K7 also rides the reggae riddim on "Zunga Zeng" and "Move It Like This" and kicks it BBD-style on "Beep Me" (Al Green's "Call Me"

updated for the new jack generation), "Swing Batta Swing" is not strictly hip-hop. He goes back to his freestyle roots on "Let's Bang," "Body Rock" and "I'll Make You Feel Good," puts some old-fashioned soul in a sweet cover of the 1974 Johnny Bristol hit "Hang On in There Baby" and even mooches off Cab Calloway on "Hi De Ho."

While the sprawling nature of the mix isn't always natural, and several of the cuts don't cut it, K7 or Kayel or whatever you call him has the strength of charm to make this an ultimately pleasant surprise.

- CHUCK ARNOLD

DUETS

Elton John / MCA

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Look out, Frank, another old baldy is back, with new hair and his own set of star-joined duets. Elton John's "Duets" partners blend very compatibly with him. The choices of material and producers are often a trip. It sounds like most dueters were in the studio with Elton, unlike Frank's collaborators.

Sweet soul music, often referencing to sounds of the 1960s, is a unifying theme - be it on the thumping remake of the Temptations' forbidding "Shakey Ground" rallied by Elton and Don Henley or the strings-endowed, Philly International-style "Teardrops" he weeps with k.d. lang.

Urban radio's gonna love Elton's first dip into hip-hop ballad waters with PM Dawn on the outstanding "When I Think About Love (I Think About You)" and the Stevie Wonder-produced "Go On and On," a bouncy statement about ''thinking 'bout the future, so love can go on and on."

Elton's first duet partner, Kiki Dee, gets with him anew for a sweet treat of Cole Porter's "True Love," a hit for Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly and the first of what's sure to be a flood of hits. Elton and Kiki's 1976 hit "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" is back, pumped for dance floor action by drag queen RuPaul and producer Giorgio Moroder. But no, he and (s)he don't exactly throw themselves into each others arms.

Marcella Detroit (Shakespeare's Sister) sounds amazingly like Diana Ross on the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell classic "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." Bonnie Raitt sounds great on a remake of the 1962 Ketty Lester classic "Love Letters." Also making cameo appearances are Chris Rea, Paul Young, George Michael, Tammy Wynette and Little Richard.

The strangest cut pairs Elton's clear pipes with Leonard Cohen's raspy rant through "Born to Lose," sweetened with strings a la Ray Charles' rendering.

- JONATHAN TAKIFF

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