Venue: Savoy Theatre, London
Gypsy is already regarded as one of the finest examples of musical theatre; with its themes of love, parental hope and a desire for fame being just as relevant now, as in 1959, when the show was first performed. It’s rather surprising, therefore, that it has taken more than forty years for a West End revival but this magnificent production proves it was certainly worth the wait.
Loosely based upon the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the show charts the decline of American vaudeville, alongside a mother’s desire for her family to gain the success she never had. When her children are auditioning for a variety show, Rose (Imelda Staunton) comes storming down the stall aisle, with dog in hand, to demand that the production team show the kids in the best light. She flirts with the orchestra, shouts to the lighting operator and insults the other acts.
Unfortunately, only she cannot see that the act – with limited songs and talent – is never destined for success. Her manic desire for fame ultimately propels those around her to turn against her. When one child walks out of the act, Rose focuses her attention on the daughter she’d previously shunned, Louise (Lara Pulver). The Depression kicks in, causing times and attitudes to change and so they are forced to play low-rent theatres to support themselves. It is here that Louise discovers the opportunity to make a name for herself, but only if her mother can accept her need for independence.
Although initially in the background, Lara Pulver terrifically portrays Louise’s transformation from the shy introvert into the coldly seductive Gypsy Rose Lee. In a brilliantly choreographed sequence, her whole body language develops to show the passage of time, as her character becomes famous, in what is only ten minutes on stage. Louise’s Act One number, “Little Lamb”, is rather superfluous to events and could have been cut had it not been sung so well.
Peter Davison imbues the part of the downtrodden agent, Herbie, with great warmth and charm. Rose and Herbie’s fractious relationship is dramatically interesting, as you’re never entirely sure who to “side” with; is it Rose, with her desire for success, or is it the everyman character of Herbie, who just wants the best for the woman he loves? While leaving the theatre, there were several groups of people debating between themselves just who was right, demonstrating the power of quality writing and acting. These are not just stock musical theatre characters, there to fill in the time between the catchy songs. Rather, there’s an engaging story, with captivating performances, which grabs you from the very start and stays with you long after the curtain falls.
With regards to Imelda Staunton’s performance as Rose, no words can encapsulate how monumentally impressive it is. Staunton reveals new layers behind Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, while managing to make the audience laugh at, cry with and be intensely frustrated by Rose. Those who look down on musical theatre as a lesser form need to see this superb performance. She is hilarious when shifting props around the stage whilst her act audition, entertaining when dancing like a vaudeville act in ”Together Wherever We Go” and wretchedly pitiful in “Rose’s Turn”, where she unleashes Rose’s frustrations with being ‘born too soon and starting too late’. Staunton’s powerhouse delivery of this final number earned her a well-deserved mid-show standing ovation from the audience. It is an incredible performance.
The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, especially Louise Gold, Julie Legrand and Anita Louise Combe as three ageing strippers, who bring the house down with their hilarious number, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. The production is ably supported by a beautiful set, designed by Anthony Ward, which fits neatly into the plush Savoy Theatre. The musical dashes across various U.S. states but Ward’s inspired use of trucks convey the change in location very well while the backstage crew clearly work hard to make each transition as smooth as possible and this has a demonstrable effect on the audience’s experience. Stephen Mear’s choreography and Jonathan Kent’s direction allows the show to flow swiftly, with no set piece lasting too long or without developing the story. The fifteen-piece orchestra make Jule Styne’s gorgeous music as exciting as the day it was written.
It’s very rare to find a piece of theatre in which every element comes together at exactly the right moment. But, in Gypsy, the writers, production team, cast and orchestra unite to create one of the greatest productions ever to grace London’s West End.