Moving swiftly into the West End following a successful run at the Chichester Festival, this quintessential Broadway musical camps up at the Savoy in lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday year, with just one cast change (Peter Davison replaces Kevin Whately as Herbie).
Written in 1959 to a book by Arthur Laurents, with music by the late Jule Styne (1905-1994), this musical takes the real life memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (born Louise Hovick) as its source, choosing to present the story of this most famous of strippers and her little sister June (who made it big in Hollywood as June Havoc) by focusing on their most monstrous of stage mothers, Momma Rose.
As Rose, Imelda Staunton must be aware she has some big shoes to fill. Although singers such as Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lu Pone, Tyne Daly and Angela Lansbury have appeared in well-received productions, each and every portrayal arguably has the ghost of the greatest of them all, Miss Ethel Merman, hanging over them. And although the tiny Staunton proves to be an engaging and convincing powerhouse, you can’t help thinking that her Rose is channelling those big voices of the past (and doing it very well).
If Staunton is harking back to Merman and others, then Davison seems to be taking inspiration from Jimmy Durante with slightly off-key and often gravelly vocals, which give his characterisation a curious and sinister quality. He does get into the spirit of the role, though, throwing himself into the ‘that’s showbiz’ vibe of ‘Together Wherever We Go’ and slumping visibly when he realises that Rose will never be the calming wife he seeks to spend his declining days with – this man gives years to Rose and her daughters and their increasingly awful vaudeville act, and yet proves dispensible at the end.
Lara Pulver, previously seen on television as the confident dominatrix Irene Adler in ‘Sherlock’, is a quite wonderful Louise, moving effortlessly from the quiet innocence of ‘Little Lamb’ (“I wonder how old I am”) to the brassy confidence of the strip-woman (“My mother says ask them what they want and then don’t give it to them … but I am not my mother.”). She comes out of her shell wonderfully in the second half of the show when she finally emerges from the shadow of her squeaky voiced sister (Gemma Sutton).
The best number though, which rightly brought the house down, is ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’, in which three old burlesque performers give advice to the newcomer. Louise Gold is quite superb and hilarious as Mazeppa (“bump it with a trumpet”), while Anita Louise Combe is a gracefully ageing Tessie Tura and Julie Legrand a cheeky Electra. This routine boasts the original Jerome Robbins choreography, a good decision as why try to improve on perfection?
Stand-out songs to look out for are the spunky ‘Some People’ in act one, where Rose vows to strike out and make her girls stars, and ‘If Momma Was Married’ where June and Louise wish for a normal existence, off the road. But it is Staunton’s ‘Rose’s Turn’ which gets the emotions stirring, and which give her the standing ovation she rightly deserves. On the debit side I felt ‘Mr Goldstone’ could have had more zip, but it is a small quibble.
The staging is simple – a fake proscenium arch with variety boards title each scene, the sparsed of sets indicate living and performance spaces. This allows the lush orchestrations and the clever lyrics from a writer just beginning to flourish to come through. I wouldn’t have used the area beyond the thrust stage, though: it isn’t fair to those in cheaper seats and adds little to the proceedings. Better to let the orchestra (who are brilliant) stay seperate and do their thing.
Jonathan Kent’s sparkling revival (the first in London for forty years) is worth a look, and if you like the traditional, old musicals it will not disappoint. If you’re used to the brash and modern pieces then you might find it slow (especially the lengthy overture), but be patient, and this ‘Gypsy’ will reward you.
For more on the real-life Hovick sisters, see here for Gypsy herself (in 1943):
and here for June (also 1943):
while Rose Hovick’s story is told in the book ‘Mama Rose’s Turn‘.