Normally, if you'd told me I had to watch a three-hour TV version of Gypsy, I'd have said that I haven't labored heroically on 200 issues of Entertainment Weekly in order to receive that sort of cruel punishment. One hundred and eighty minutes of an old musical about a loud, pushy stage mother? Sorry. Chalk it up to a rock-generation gap, but I'm sure I'm not alone in admitting that musicals are a popular art form that has pretty much escaped me. The only musical score I ever learned was from The Music Man, because my mother had a crush on Robert Preston and played it constantly. To this day, properly oiled, I can do a version of ''Trouble (in River City)'' that'll pop your eyes.
All of this is by way of saying I ended up having a shockingly good time watching Gypsy and can heartily invoke a critical cliche: Even if you don't like musicals, you'll like this one. The primary reason is Bette Midler's hilarious, heartfelt performance as Mama Rose, a star turn that caps a real comeback of a year for Midler. After recent flop movies like For the Boys (1991) and Hocus Pocus (1993), Midler's decision to launch a concert tour a few months ago paid off with sold-out houses, ecstatic reviews, and a renewed appreciation for the singer as a unique presencea showbiz throwback whose stage work always seems cutting edge.
In its own way, Gypsy itself has made a comeback. When it premiered on Broadway in 1959, starring Ethel Merman as Mama Rose, this musical-comedy adaptation of the memoirs of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee was hailed for the artful way it handled tougher subjects than the genre usually tackled-in this case, the ferocious side of motherhood, and stripping as a career option. Songs in the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score, such as ''Let Me Entertain You,'' ''Everything's Coming Up Roses,'' and ''Small World,'' have become pop standards. But the 1962 film version, starring Rosalind Russell, was a critical failure that devalued the material until first Angela Lansbury (in 1974) and then Tyne Daly (in 1989) presided over well-received Broadway revivals.
Midler's version, directed by Emile Ardolino (Sister Act), who died of AIDS last month, is bravely old-fashioned. Looking at its traditionally shot scenes and leisurely pacing, you could easily think this movie had been made in the '50s or '60s. Its colors are garish, but then, Gypsy is a garish piece of material; for all the intricacy of Sondheim's lyrics, this is still basically the story of a mother who so devalues her daughter's sense of worth that the girl becomes ''a cheap stripper.'' We're supposed to think that because Gypsy Rose Lee (played here by Cynthia Gibb) became a big star who transcended the burlesque circuit, the verbal abuse she endured from her mom was worth it.
The musical asks something very difficult of its audience: that we have sympathy for the monster-the goading, overbearingly ambitious mother. But by the time Midler revs up for her final-curtain showstopper, ''Rose's Turn,'' she has convinced us that Rose-brassy, vulgar, and selfish-is worthy of respect as a woman who had to live out her dreams through her children because, as she says, she was ''born too soon and started too late.'' Midler builds ''Rose's Turn'' into a spectacular statement of amoral show-business principles.
The rest of the cast isn't working in Midler's league, though. Gibb (The Karen Carpenter Story) makes the transition from morose mouse to prima-donna peeler with convincing relish. Peter Riegert (Middle Ages, Local Hero), as the cynical agent Herbie, seems too constantly depressed to be the guy who captures feisty Rose's heart. Ed Asner is barely on screen long enough to register as Rose's father, and talented stage veterans like Keene Curtis and Evening Shade's Michael Jeter barely qualify for cameo status in their regrettably tiny roles. Speaking of tiny roles, sometimes being a rock fan pays off in unexpected ways-if you remember your '70s new wave, you'll recognize tender-voiced Rachel Sweet (whose 1978 album, Fool Around, is a pop gem) here as the dippy vaudevillian Agnes.
But if this version of Gypsy isn't the one that epitomizes this musicalmany fans more knowledgeable than I hold that Lansbury's production was the all-around greatestit is certainly the right vehicle for Midler to continue the upward spiral of her career.