Gypsy***** (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Posted: October 22, 2014 in Theatre

gypsy_media_530e01bac4b8fThis is the first time that I have been to the new theatre here and I wonder if there can be anywhere better for staging a big musical. The audience is seated in a crescent around the traverse stage and, most crucially, the orchestra is where it should be, in a pit front of stage and effectively amongst us. Under the direction of Nicholas Skilbeck, they make a truly glorious sound, transporting us right back to the Great White Way in its golden age. The sound alone makes the journey here worthwhile, but, of course, Jules Styne has given the musicians something pretty marvellous to play, with a score that stands alongside the very best. Gypsy first appeared on Broadway in 1959 with Ethel Merman in the lead and, since then, it has been revived there regularly as a vehicle for almost every leading musical theatre actress who is old enough to have grown-up daughters. However, it has not been seen in London’s West End since the legendary 1973 production starring Angela Lansbury. That omission must be about to be rectified.

Arthur Laurents’ book tells of Momma Rose, a domineering mother of two daughters – the younger, June, is pushed from childhood to become the Vaudeville star that Rose herself always dreamed of being and the older, Louise is constantly put down, used to sew costumes and only allowed to appear on stage as the back end of a cow. When June jumps ship and elopes, Rose turns to Louise to fulfil her showbiz dreams, but, instead of making it big on the fading Vaudeville circuit, she finds tainted success in Burlesque, becoming the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose real life memoir suggested the show.

In Rose, Imelda Staunton, that diminutive giant of the British stage, has found the role that she was born to play. A string of formidable stars have tackled Rose before, all no doubt bringing their own touches of brilliance, but it would be surprising if any of them managed to capture both the hard edge and the soft centre of the character quite so perfectly. In the first half, she makes Everything’s Coming Up Roses a barnstorming hymn of hope and optimism, but when she reprises it towards the end of the show, she stands alone on the vast, bare stage and, with Rose now made a bystander by the very success that she had dedicated her life to achieving, Staunton exposes every line of the lyrics as a delusion, a mere mask for all Rose’s hollow dreams. At the end of the reprise, she steps forward to take her bows in a supposedly empty auditorium, but, inevitably, the illusion is ruined when the real-life audience, many standing, gives her a thunderous ovation. This is a head-dizzying, heart-pumping, eye-watering piece of pure theatre that will be etched in the memory forever.

All that said, this is not a one-woman show. As the girls’ long-suffering agent, Herbie, Kevin Whately is extremely effective. Perhaps due to his familiarity from television, he brings the key quality of likability which is perfect to set against the hurricane force of Rose and his gravelly voice sees him through two great duets. Lara Pulver was the vamp who pierced the supposedly impenetrable heart of Sherlock on television and she assumes a similar guise here as Gypsy, but only for the show’s last quarter. The joy of her performance is seeing Louise’s transformation from a sweet, shy, neglected girl, eventually adding a new layer of confidence for every layer of clothing that she removes. She sings beautifully too in a performance that, in almost any other show, would be the star attraction.

Coming two year’s after West Side Story, this is the last major hit for which Stephen Sondheim wrote only the lyrics and his collaboration with Styne produces one magical song after another throughout the show. Jonathan Kent’s direction and Stephen Mear’s choreography are packed with so many fine details that it feels as if at least one more viewing will be necessary to take them all in and what a chore that will be.

Performance date: 21 October 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.