fri 24/05/2024

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre

Imelda Staunton dazzles with truth and vitality in a near-perfect musical

Mamma Rose (Imelda Staunton) and her young vaudevilliansImages by Johan Persson

Vaudeville is alive and well in the silvered Lilliputian cave which might have been made for it (not that Victorian Savoyards could have had any inkling). If you find yourself, like last night’s showbiz audience, beguiled to cheering point by the shreds-and-patches routines put together by the ultimate theatrical whirlwind, Mamma Rose, that’s because everything in this London transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre, parody included, is solid gold.

Heck, I’d even have paid to hear the first trumpet in the fabulous wind-and-brass orchestra tune up.

Then, of course, there’s Imelda Staunton, a singing actress incapable of false notes in words (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) or music (Jule Styne) playing a woman who tries to make her living out of them. This Rose is a woman of such indiscriminate vitality that she's a nervous breakdown waiting to happen, however many years it may take. But she’s also a rounded character who lives in other dimensions, too. As well as managing to be a belter who manages to steer clear of any obvious Mermanisms, Staunton can play the siren, turning on the charm in the serpentine phrases of “Small World” to get her agent and man (Peter Davison, hoarsely nice in order to explode all the more effectively when enough is enough). She can think on the hoof – not inappropriate for a woman who finds a cow continually wandering into her dreams – and take account of human weakness, even if she doesn’t often act on it. Making good use of her capital is one thing Rose has in common with Staunton's incomparable Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Though she doesn't end up in an oven, this lady shows Lovettesque flashes of brutality at characters around the periphery of her ambition for her daughters, momentarily shocking.

Lara Pulver and Gemma Sutton in GypsySince, until the bitter end, everything Rose sings and does is in relation to the unfortunate folk around her, all but one of the showstoppers can’t function in isolation. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, her manic Act One curtain number after her biggest hope, daughter  “Baby” June, has run off with a talented dancer – Dan Burton, spellbinding in his one fantasy number with splendid choreography by Stephen Mear – needs and gets the contrast of shocked numbness from Davison’s Herbie and ashen daughter Rose (Lara Pulver, pictured above with Gemma Sutton). You still come out singing the tune, but it’s a rather disorienting way to be left at the interval. In the symmetry of Jonathan Kent’s smooth-running production, the familiar number titled “Together, Wherever We Go" in Act Two starts in the same way, but with Staunton's Rose using every trick in the book to humour her two stooges, and us, it resolves into genuinely rosy optimism.

That can't last, of course, and if there’s a bump in this production, it’s Louise’s transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee, who shows off more knowledge than flesh, as rendered by Pulver; but then we can presume that the erudite semi-revealer might not have been half the performer her mother was. Which is the show’s delicious have-your-cake-and-eat-it: Mamma Rose is the star, and the inevitable but unprecedented disintegration of “Rose’s Turn”, where Staunton flabbergasts us with her silent mouthing, only proves it all the more. It’s much too scary a scene for the standing ovation which greeted it last night. Our mother and daughter held the tension, though, and what follows allows us finally to shed a tear or two rather than simply succumb to the goosebumps which have been in plentiful supply.

Jule Styne feeds his cast with at least six unforgettable numbersKent, a director who managed to make a silly pantomime out of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children - referenced here in an excellent programme note by theartsdesk's Matt Wolf - seems to find musicals his metier. He goes for the proper moments of gravity among the energetic high jinks, and in Anthony Ward he has a designer who can glide from garish showbiz – the first vaudeville set could almost be by one of Diaghilev’s 1920s artists – to boarding-house squalor.

Let’s not underestimate the role played in the general charming paciness by co-orchestrator (with Tom Kelly) and musical director Nicholas Skilbeck; there can’t be a better pit orchestra than his in the West End at the moment. And every actor plays his or her role to perfection, from the astoundingly talented squeak in pink that is Scarlet Roche – I’d give this Baby June a contract on the spot – to the three burlesquers in the showstopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. Reliable musical star Louise Gold, who would surely make a fine Momma if she ever gets a chance to go on as understudy, fills the stage as Miss Mazeppa with her consummate trumpeting, but there’s also a pitch-perfect performance from Anita Louise Combe as Tessie Tura, while Julie Legrand’s wig and gear as Electra(fying) would do a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race proud.

Of course Jule Styne feeds his cast with at least six unforgettable numbers – which puts Gypsy up there with the rows of bullseyes in Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro and Annie, Get Your Gun – while Sondheim’s lyrics feed us a banquet of rhymes (exquisitely delivered by Pulver and “sister” Gemma Sutton in that most infectious of waltz-duets “If Momma Were Married”, as good a turn as any). This really is as near perfect as a musical can get; what a privilege to feel its full but never over-emphatic force in the intimate surroundings of this Glyndebourne among London theatres.

Next page: the late, great Elaine Stritch gives an encore about Gypsy Rose Lee from another show by another great songwriting team

Elaine Stritch sings Rodgers and Hart's song about clever Gypsy from Pal Joey in her one-woman show

You still come out singing the tune of 'Everything's Coming Up Roses', but it’s a rather disorienting way to be left at the interval


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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