For those not familiar with the story, Gypsy focuses on the life of Louise and her forceful mother, Rose. Starting when Louise is small and in the shadow of her talented sister June, we follow Rose’s journey as she does everything possible to get her girls in the spotlight. With some flirting, Rose manages to get June’s terrible act a manager in the form of Herbie, and then gets funding to take the act to the big time!
As the story progresses, and Rose’s heavy-handed approach to motherhood slowly drives away those around her – first June and then later Herbie – Louise sees an opportunity in teasing men during a burlesque show. After all, she can learn from the best; a manly trumpet player, a 60-a-day hag with light-up bits, and a ditsy blonde in a butterfly costume. Gathering success, Louise rebrands as Gypsy Rose Lee, abandons Rose and ultimately becomes what her mother always aspired to be.
As musicals go, Gypsy already has a firm place in the ‘classics’ category. Here in its first London revival since the original London production back in 1973 it is in fine form. While the story has clearly been structured to fit the musical format, it manages to still contain enough gravitas to give the production depth that you often don’t find in many newer creations. Arthur Laurents’ book moves the story along at a decent pace, keeping much of the first act light-hearted, despite the quite dark undercurrent of Rose’s actions and the treatment of the children. At one point, Rose even nabs a few extra kids from the side of the road as her and the girls go on their way.
It’s always seemed odd (to me, at least) that much of the focus is on Rose’s character, despite the title of the production, but it works well, and as the second act progresses, amidst more of a focus on the darker side of Laurents’ book, Gypsy Rose Lee becomes central to the narrative. Ultimately the divide between first and second act works well. This is a serious musical, after all, but no one is after three hours of child abduction and slave labour…
There’s no getting away from the buzz surrounding this production of the show. With Imelda Staunton in the role of Rose, it’s the first musical in the west end to pick up so much star attention in some time, and deservedly so. Throughout the run in Chichester and in these early stages of this London run, reviews of the production have been almost unanimously five stars – and that’s largely because of the the central star. With a surprising vocal that would give any musical veteran a run for their money, Staunton is an absolute powerhouse – enough aplomb to belt out the big numbers in Jule Styne’s score, and the subtlety of a screen actor giving depth and genuine emotion to the performance.
It would be unfair to say that the supporting cast are anything less than perfect, though. Lara Pulver as Louise makes a fantastic transition from timid girl to sexy burlesque star, Peter Davison does a fine job as Herbie and as Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura, Louise Gold, Julie Legrand and Anita Louise Combe get one of the biggest cheers of the night. And special mention does have to go to the child actors who do a phenomenal job of grabbing the audience’s attention.
It’s Jonathan Kent’s direction that really deserves credit for the strength of this production though, not just its cast. There’s a sense of old school theatre on show here and it’s reflected in everything from Stephen Mear’s choreography – see a truly stunning dance during ‘All I need is the girl’ by Dan Burton – to the traditional set design by Anthony Ward, which is incredibly detailed but relatively simple in its execution. Kent wields it all into three hours of timeless theatre that the London stage hasn’t seen in some time.
You’ll hear a lot about the power of Imelda Staunton’s performance, but that’s not all that’s on show here. This is musical theatre at its very best, and you’ll be hard-pressed to see anything done as perfectly as this in some time. Grab a ticket while you can, sit back and enjoy the year if not the decade’s best musical theatre.
(Update: 21/11/15) A second viewing a week before the end of the run, this is still as outstanding as on the first visit, albeit with Gemma Sutton now in the role of Louise. With Imelda Staunton an absolute powerhouse and the show as fresh as it was when it started, when this closes next week the west end will be a sadder and less varied place. Thank goodness, it looks set to be immortalised on TV and DVD.)
Gypsy is playing at the Savoy Theatre in London until 28th November 2015. Tickets are available from the Ambassador Theatre Group website here.
And the seat…
Stalls, row K, seat 2. A cracking seat. There’s never a point when the action on stage is missed, a decent rake so the heads in front weren’t an issue and you still feel relatively close. Seats in the Savoy aren’t the most comfortable – but this did look to have slightly more legroom (I’m 6’0″) than the end of row J.
Can’t fault this seat. Yes it’s off to the side but didn’t miss any of the action. That said, the seat to the left is £20 less and the view is exactly the same. This row did seem particularly good in terms of the rake and you could see more or less right over the heads of the people in front.