15 April 2015
The thing about Gypsy is that everyone has an opinion about how and why it works and what is essential if a production of it is to succeed.
There are those who think the show, as written, is perfect in terms of score and book and that, no matter who directs or who is cast, it will succeed. There are those who think it can only succeed if the woman playing Rose is a brash, brassy belter in the Ethel Merman mould as it was for her that the score was penned. There are those who think that Rose can only be played by a real actress, that the singing is not as important to the believability of the breakdown that occurs in Rose’s Turn. There are those who think Rose is not as important as Gypsy Rose Lee. There are those who live for Tulsa’s wonderful dance number All I Need Is The Girl. And there are those who think Gypsy is old-fashioned tosh which has no relevance or appeal to modern audiences.
No matter what school of thought about Gypsy most appeals to your own sensibilities, the revival which opened last night at the Savoy Theatre, a transfer of the successful Chichester Festival Theatre production last year, will likely change your view of Gypsy forever. For as impressive as that production was (Read The Chichester Review) this version is superior in absolutely every way.
This is likely to be the definitive production of Gypsy for a generation.
The Savoy Theatre is a perfect home for this Gypsy. The places where Rose might want her troupe to play might have looked like the Savoy does, and, as an encapsulation of wonderfully grand theatricality, it has a lot going for it. The sight of Rose alone on its vast, darkened stage is powerful indeed.
After two weeks of perfectly drilled, perfectly cast, perfectly wonderful performances of musicals, old and new, on Broadway, by unfeasibly talented casts, I confess to entertaining a real fear that this company would not, could not, measure up to that standard. But it does – impeccably.
And overtakes them all.
Everyone in this company is superb in their part, everyone can really sing, really dance and really deliver the goods in terms of dramatic and comic acting. This is that rare beast: an exquisitely cast musical where the requirements of the parts have more importance in the casting process than potential box office draw or Twitter popularity.
The creative team is at the top of their game, all working together to bring life to this great musical, which boasts a terrifically tuneful score from Jule Styne, a book by Arthur Laurents, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Every aspect of the production, set, costumes, lighting, sound, has fresh life on the Savoy stage, demonstrating what a natural home it is for perfectly cast, cleverly directed musicals. Jonathan Kent has presided over a genuine masterpiece.
Confined to a proscenium stage, rather than the vast expanse of the Chichester Festival Theatre, and with its own fake proscenium arch to add to the theatre life feel of the musical, the production achieves a real intimacy. The sets and costumes work beautifully, adding or taking away lustre and glamour as each scene requires. The transformations are seamless and the lighting impeccable – shadows have power, and reflect the different levels on which the action plays out. The scene where Louise transforms into Gypsy Rose Lee, with well wishers huddled in the wings, is breath-taking: all the design elements combine to produce a spell-binding and immensely beautiful transition.
There are so many intoxicating touches: Billy Hartman’s splenetic, acerbic Uncle Jocko; the Alpine trills of Isla Huggins-Barr’s scene stealing Baby June; the deadpan horror of Holly Hazelton’s Baby Louise, mortified by the grey beard she has to wear as Uncle Sam; the glorious Cow costume; Imelda Staunton’s effortless Mrs Worthington turn as her daughters perform, rescuing a dropped hat mid chorus-line or announcing a train; Julie Legrand’s deathly, thin-lipped, and pin-curled Miss Cratchitt, a real match for Rose; the genuinely sad farewell to the boys by Peter Davison’s old softie, Herbie; Louise Gold’s spectacular entrance as Mazeppa; the moment of real warmth between Anita Louise Combe’s pitch-perfect Tessie and Natalie Woods’ teary Agnes; Le Grand’s hilariously ditzy, dipsomaniac, Electra. Moments of ecstasy in a sea of perfection.
Peter Davison shines as Herbie and is a welcome addition to the cast. His amiable, lugubrious, salesman/agent with a big heart is beautiful to watch. He and Lara Pulver work wonders on the unspoken relationship between Herbie and Louise; it is pure magic to watch that relationship grow from misunderstanding and unease to the point where he can call her his daughter and she can blush with joy.
Davison is funny and radiates sincerity. He makes a delicious foil for Staunton’s Rose, in the courting phase, the hard work phase, the joyful phase and then the devastating break-up. He is the only Herbie I have ever seen who convinces that Rose’s actions in making Louise strip have caused him to be violently ill. Equally, he is at ease with the singing and dancing where it counts – Together Wherever We Go is pure delight.
As the three old hands with good lines in Gimmicks, the stripper trio of Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand are phenomenal. They completely convince as reluctant friends, all doomed to the same grubby Burlesque life, but delighting in finding ways to make each other happy and miserable. It’s a tremendous team effort from three astute actresses who can belt, shimmy, and grind with the best of them. They don’t fight each other, but work seamlessly together in Gotta Have A Gimmick, a riotous display of Tits And Arse which, quite rightly, brings the house down.
Combe is especially good in the key scene with Lara Pulver’s Louise, when she lays the seeds for what Louise might be capable of doing, a scene which has to work just so for the dynamics of the story to properly play out. Her faux affectations of balletic grandeur are compellingly persuasive and the light that comes into Pulver’s eyes when Combe casually offers to change her life is exciting. Gold is an unstoppable force of sheer sexual charisma as Mazeppa (the man next to me seemed likely to die when she bumped her grind) and Legrand’s hazy, hilarious, and splendidly nude Electra, is the supremely beguiling third peak of a spectacular triangle of talent.
Dan Burton is absolutely perfect as Tulsa. The quintessential, manly, matinee idol, a superlative dancer and singer – his All I Need Is The Girl was intoxicating, a study in committed storytelling through song and dance. The moment when he encouraged Louise to join him was both thrilling and heart-breaking. Gemma Sutton’s June was also exactly right, clearly the older version of Baby June and, eerily, a younger version of Rose. Her work with Pulver was exceptional and If Momma Was Married was a true meeting of sisterly minds.
For her part, Pulver ensured that she was an older version of Baby Louise, and the tomboy opening scenes contrast beautifully with the elegant feminine siren that Gypsy Rose Lee becomes. Absolutely stunning, Pulver charted the character’s evolution from moth to perfect butterfly with consummate ease. Her rendition of Little Lamb was touching and necessary, laying the seeds for the kindness she would eventually choose to show Rose. Her wordless humiliation when Tulsa marries June was stunningly communicated.
The transition from shy wallflower to Grande Dame of the Striptease is achieved in a glorious way, Pulver managing every step carefully and sensibly. We see, clearly, the moment when she abandons Louise and becomes Gypsy, and then her supple ease with costume changes and finessed high-class audience goading. Her final scenes, when luxury and Vogue are all hers, make perfect sense, so skilfully has Pulver managed the journey.
The key relationship between Staunton and Pulver is flawless; every high, every low, every mistake, every error of judgment, every truth – all marked out with deft, sure playing by both actresses. When they hug, hard, after Rose’s Turn, it is impossible not to shed a tear. Adding Davison to the mix produces a cocktail of tremulous, truthful relationships, shaken and stirred.
Staunton is simply magnificent as Rose. In absolutely every way.
The key to Staunton’s performance is its chilling authenticity. She lays the seeds of Rose’s driven, obsessive character from the very first scene: she deals with Uncle Jocko with the same steel and impervious determination with which she faces June’s betrayal and Louise’s ultimate career choice. At the same time, shameless displays of feminine wiles are consistently employed throughout, as are invocations of “the good book”, a reliance on dreams, and the frugal living which always sees her put her girls first. The hollow, ghastly image of Rose eating dog food from a tin preshadows, precisely, her disintegration in Rose’s Turn.
Using the music as just another part of her dramatic armoury, Staunton faultlessly tackles the score. She is, rightly, not interested in out-singing Styne. Rather, she takes her impetus from Sondheim’s lyrics, using the big notes to make points and punctuation marks, and taking every chance to give life to the melodies. Some People is driven, ambitious; Small World, flirty and sensual; Have An Eggroll, shocked and then desperate; You’ll Never Get Away From Me, seductive and easy; Everything’s Coming Up Roses, wild, calculating, born of hysteria; Together Wherever We Go joyous, full of hope.
Then, finally, Rose’s Turn, a tour de force which is the sum of all that has gone before, but which, for the first time, rips away the irrepressible veneer and uncovers the lost, disappointed, lonely spirit within. Staunton is phenomenal vocally, finding fresh and unique ways to tell Rose’s story through song. You may think you know these songs – but no matter how well you do know the songs, Staunton surprises you with her unique perspective. Literally, you have never heard anyone deliver these songs in the way Staunton does.
She brought the house screaming to its feet with her powerful and emotionally draining rendition of Rose’s Turn, and then used the ovation applause as part of the texture of her performance – showing a glimpse of the thoughts Rose was imagining. Suddenly, the cheering audience was part of what was being cheered. It was an extraordinarily powerful moment of theatrical incandescence.
Staunton’s acting is faultless, peerless, one-of-kind. Whether it is rage at betrayal, hope about a new dream, the shattering silence caused by June’s secret marriage, charming a man to get her own way, putting her hand around Louise’s throat to show how hard she is prepared to squeeze to ensure goals are reached, or the prickly heat of simple hurt, Staunton conveys every emotion, every thought with an acuity that is both telling and convincing.
It is difficult to believe that there has ever been a better Rose than Staunton creates here.
Stephen Mear’s choreography is magical and enthralling. Sometimes simple, sometimes tricksy, the dancing throughout is genuinely surprising and utterly appropriate. It is so good, you don’t even notice that they are dancing most of the time. A seamless junction of dance and text. Nicholas Skilbeck’s musical direction is just as superb – the orchestra is bold, brash, and lush, and the singing uniformly in tune, at tempi, and full of blooming, bright and perfectly phrased singing.
Dame Angela Lansbury was in the audience tonight. The first Rose on a West End stage seeing her successor. In every way, this was a momentous night for the West End.
If you have any interest in musical theatre, this Gypsy is the event of the decade.