Chichester Festival Theatre
11 October 2014
In 1959 a vehicle for the blazing, brassy Broadway star Ethel Merman opened on Broadway and ran for just over 700 performances. Gypsy boasted a tuneful, compelling score from Julie Styne, lyrics from a young Stephen Sondheim (Merman would not permit an unknown to write the score) and was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. It won no Tony Awards despite being nominated in 8 categories.
Fourteen years later, Elaine Stritch was to play the lead, Momma Rose, in a West End production but the backing could not be found and so Angela Lansbury took the role, and it transferred to Broadway where she won a Tony award.
Since that time, the role of Momma Rose has been seen as a vehicle for the greatest Broadway stars/divas: Tyne Daly, Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lupone, Tovah Feldshuh and Caroline O’Connor. It is interesting to note that Bernadette Peters did not win a Tony for her Rose’s turn but the Sam Mendes production in which she starred ran for about 120 performances (or 15 weeks) longer than the multi-award winning Arthur Laurents production which starred Patti Lupone.
Many foolish people think that Gypsy cannot work without a performer in the Merman/Lupone mould as Momma Rose; these are the people who dismiss Peters’ performance because she doesn’t have “the right voice”. These are people who don’t understand that Momma Rose is a character in a piece of extraordinary musical theatre and there are many ways to play her because she is a complex, difficult, driven and quite remarkable woman. She is not just a monster, an excuse for a belter to pound out hit tunes, thrillingly or otherwise. Lansbury, Daly, Peters and O’Connor certainly all clearly understood this and each delivered vibrant, remarkable portrayals; to a limited extent, so did Lupone, but she firmly had her portrayal in the brassy belter camp.
The astonishing Imelda Staunton is now giving her Momma Rose in a revival of Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in a production directed by Jonathan Kent, designed by Anthony Ward, with musical direction by Nicholas Skilbeck and with superb and stylish (and mostly original) choreography from the tireless Stephen Mear.
It is beautiful, hilarious, fabulously sung, heart-breaking and uplifting – as near perfection as any production of Gypsy is every going to be. This is one of the greatest productions ever of one of the greatest musicals ever.
Everything about Kent’s vision here gels and focusses attention where it needs to be: on the story and the drives and desires of the characters – all of them, not just the three leads. Ward’s design allows the sense of theatricality and vaudeville to be a permanent, but not instrusive, presence: there is an old-fashioned, but somehow, energetic proscenium arch on the sides of which the equivalent of cards appear, giving a short-hand note to the audience about the nature of the scene they are watching – a modern equivalent to the scantily dressed ingénue changing boards on a stand at one side of the theatre.
The old-fashioned approach to the design – there are lots of trucks that move back and forth – reinforces the sense of the period in which Gypsy is set but, at key moments, Ward employs trapdoors and rising platforms to surprise, add charm or poignancy or emphasise a magical moment. The costumes are quite superb throughout; everyone always looks good, even when they are deliberately looking bad. The cow is a masterpiece. And when Miss Gypsy Rose Lee comes into her own, her outfits are sensational.
Skilbeck does excellent work in the pit and his orchestrations do much to cover the appalling lack of strings. This score really benefits from strings in key places and their absence was profound. However, Skilbeck’s orchestrations ensured that the rich, ripe score never felt tinny or underwhelming. The tempi were vigorous and the diction of the entire company outstanding – not a word was lost. The playing from the pit is delicious and delightful.
Mear has done tremendous work in the dance department. Tulsa’s All I Need Is The Girl is breathtakingly good, completely encapsulating Tulsa’s dreams, panache, style and potential. Dan Burton, completely masculine and dripping with élan, makes every step perfect and the whole number glows. It’s rare that first Acts of musicals boast an 11 o’clock number, but Burton and Mear make this one exactly that.
Mear shows particular insight in ensuring that the choreography that the kids in Momma Rose’s troupe use are the sorts of dance steps she would have crafted, not him. This sort of insight and care makes all those scenes just that bit more thrilling. All of the choreography is excellent, but particular joy can be found in Small World, Mr Goldstone, Rose’s Turn and You Gotta Get A Gimmick (where Mear has recreated the original Robbins’ choreography).
Lara Pulver is quite sensational as Louise/Gypsy. In the first Act, she draws no attention to herself, content to be the forgotten daughter. Her rendition of Little Lamb is soft and beautiful. As she watches Tulsa dance, her eyes betray her character’s hunger for a chance to be noticed. Then, in Act Two, she slowly takes charge of her life and her gorgeous, critical scene with Anita Combe’s pitch-perfect Tessie Tura sees her shed her dependence on her mother’s say-so and the transformation begins apace, all leading to the truly delicious mirror moment where she finally accepts her own beauty. Pulver handles the sequence where Gypsy comes to life and fame as a burlesque striper with grace and subtlety, and the transition from frightened novice to accomplished diva/star is as layered and carefully achieved as any portrayal of King Lear’s descent into madness.
Which pays off, not just for her but for Staunton as well. Pulver ensures that her Gypsy will not follow in her mother’s footsteps. She can forgive her mother – and she does. The final scene between Pulver and Staunton is intoxicating; the promise of a future not nearly as bleak as the past. Not always does Gypsy end on a note of hope – but it is definitely the right note on which to end as Kent’s production shows with a clarity that is crystal clear. And Pulver is key to that.
Herbie is a difficult role; he is both crucial and unimportant. He does not get that much to work with but it is essential that he is likeable and that you can believe in his relationship with Momma Rose. Kevin Whately gets away with the part nicely, mostly because of the effort Staunton puts in to making her seduction of and need for Herbie comprehensible and human. He uses his inherent affability to good effect.
Gemma Sutton is a fabulous, pouting, flouncing pink ball of energetic awfulness as the hideously spoilt June. Particularly inspired is the way the child actors each have mannerisms which are picked up by the adults who take over as the characters age. The transition scene from childhood performer to adult performer is wonderfully done.
All of the smaller roles are played with great skill; there are no bum notes here, no small players. Julie Legrand is sensational as the crisp fountain of disdain and formality that is Miss Cratchitt, her speech as crimped and clipped as her hair. Jack Chissick’s apoplectic Mr Goldstone is a delight and Harry Dickman makes the absolute most of Pop.
I have never seen a trio of strippers as engaging, remarkable and downright fantastic as the one Kent has assembled here. Louise Gold’s rubenesque Amazon/Boadicea Mazeppa is stupendous in every way – vocally, physically and in terms of sheer charisma. Combe’s slightly ditzy, heart-of-gold ageing ballerina Tessie is perfection (she lands every joke)and she sings and dances with controlled, channelled gusto; pure brio. Legrande makes an astonishing entrance as the intoxicated and intoxicating Electra and never misses a moment to shine.
The best, and perhaps most unusual thing about this trio, is that they really are a trio. The three women play with each other, not against; no one tries to outdo another. And from the strength of their support comes a real glow of joy, energy and sublime entertainment. Quite rightly, they stopped the show. You Gotta Get a Gimmick is this show’s second 11 O’clock number. Here, a bullseye in every respect.
Imelda Staunton simply transforms every notion you ever had about Momma Rose with her extraordinary, incredibly detailed and vitally intense portrayal. Her Rose is a woman resentful about those who have walked out on her, especially her own mother, and she fiercely tries to bind her daughters to her by her persistence and the sheer force of her will. But, she is also a small, dainty woman capable of great charm and sensuality – on her first entrance, Staunton lavishes charm on the audience; when she first meets Herbie she uses her feminine wiles to sensual effect, easily and truly.
Staunton says lines that have been heard hundreds of times – but when she says them, it is like they have never been said before. Constantly, one is struck with a revelation – oh, that’s what that line means!
She sings Some People with astonishing venom, setting, implacably and calmly, the benchmark for her vocal performance: very, very high. Staunton achieves moments of true vocal beauty in the softer passages in Small World, You’ll Never Get Away From Me and Together and she delivers the big numbers with real power, both in terms of vocal delivery and performance of the character’s particular moment. Both Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn are blistering, confronting and revelatory.
Staunton is riveting in every moment: moving a prop while her kids are performing, cajoling various people into action, mouthing the words to tunes she forces her charges to perform, silent and grieving and shattered when reading and recovering from June’s letter of betrayal, confronted by and then assimilating the world of Burlesque, pretending not to be devastated by Herbie’s departure. There is so much texture, detail and complexity here; what Staunton does is nothing short of extraordinary.
The pain and enervating grief Momma Rose experiences when she realises that she has “left” her daughters just as her mother left her is startling and overwhelming. Rose’s Turn is etched with pain, but against a clear background of what might have been. And Staunton determinedly lays the groundwork for her devastating break-down all through the production; when it happens, there is no doubt why it is happening or what caused it. It’s an absolutely miraculous performance.
There is no doubt that this production should travel to the West End. It would be a crime if it didn’t.
For more information on Gypsy visit the Chichester Festival Theatre website