THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Jonathan Kent's finely polished production, transferring from Chichester, is amazingly the first West End outing for Gypsy in over 40 years. Considered one of the crowning achievements of the art form, this show from 1959, has that unbeatable combination of Styne's unforgettable tunes, lyrics of supreme wit and intelligence by Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, which gives us complex characters and which seamlessly blends the dramatic and musical elements. In an age of vapid rock musicals and cynical jukebox shows it's an object lesson in what a musical should be.
On Broadway it has been revived once a decade. Every Momma Rose seems to win the Tony and the part is considered the King Lear of the musical theater. Here, Imelda Staunton, has scaled that mountaintop and totally deserves all her 5 star reviews. Since her last West End musical, Sweeney Todd, her voice has become darker, richer and more powerful.
Loosely based on the memoirs of the striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee the show follows the unstinting efforts of Rose to raise two daughters to perform on the touring vaudeville stage. The character Louise is based on Lee, with sister June being the child performer who grew up to become the movie actress, June Havoc. Set in the 1920s as the old vaudeville circuit gave way to movies and the less wholesome pleasures of burlesque, the theme of the restless search for show business fame still has a resonance today. Just look at the horrors of Britain's Got Talent or X Factor.
Staunton's Rose is gloriously multi-faceted. One minute she's a vamp, zoning in on the good natured Herbie (Peter Davison) as husband material, the next she's mother hen or she's cutting deals with impresarios or nicking cutlery from Chinese restaurants. With all that ego, her first moment of self-doubt must end in tears and Sondheim's great finale number 'Rose's Turn' provides one of the greatest musical soliloquies ever, which Staunton delivers like a tornado.
Of course she follows not just Ethel Merman but also Angela Lansbury (who was in on first night), Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone in the role. They all shared a larger than life persona and very distinctive singing voices, they were all stars first and actresses second. Staunton though, despite probably being the best actress of the bunch, still doesn't have that iconic stature. This is a minor carp however because there is currently nobody else in the West End who has that either.
Her Rose is a monster, a showbusiness Mother Courage and she doesn't allow any sentimentality to intrude. This Brechtian plunge goes against the grain of your typical Broadway show but it is what makes this show a masterpiece.
It is Styne's unforgettable tunes though which generate the emotional punch of the piece and Musical Director Nicholas Skilbeck's new arrangements (with Tom Kelly) are just a wonder. This is the best pit band you'll hear in a long time and they prove that you don't need to amp it to death to make a connection.
Kent has drawn together a perfect cast and Lara Pulver perfectly calibrates Louise's transformation from shy neglected teen to confident star. With a golden voice, Pulver is going places. As usual in this show however it's the trio of burlesque strippers, performing 'You Gotta Get a Gimmick', who bring the house down. Here, it was great to witness the relish which West End veteran Louise Gold brought to Mazeppa, a woman who stands out in more ways than one.
Extended West End run: now booking to 28 November 2015.