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Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre is an amazing theatrical experience

GYPSY by Sondheim, Savoy Theatre London
GYPSY by Sondheim, Photo by Johan Persson

Sometimes there has been so much publicity about a show opening that there is a real fear that it may have trouble living up to the hype. Luckily for theatregoers in London, “Gypsy” the most eagerly anticipated opening of 2015, did not disappoint in any way shape or form.

Single mother of two daughters, Momma Rose Hovic (Imelda Staunton) is a woman on a mission. No matter what it takes, she is going to make one of her girls a star in Vaudeville. Focussing all her energy on ‘Baby’ June (Gemma Sutton) Rose elicits the help of retired theatrical agent Herbie (Peter Davidson) to build an act that will propel ‘June’ to the big time. However, this is the era of the Great Depression and, to be honest once the children start to grow up, ‘Dainty June and the Newsboys’ is a pretty dire act. After a massive falling out with her mother, June walks out of the show causing Momma Rose to re-focus her efforts and energy on June’s older sister Louise (Lara Pulver). Rebuilding the act around Louise, Momma Rose ignores the fact that Vaudeville is in its death throes and that Louise isn’t really that talented, and sets off to get back in the real-live theatre. Accidentally ending up in a house of Burlesque, Momma Rose reveals the depths that she will go to in order to get a gold star on her daughter’s dressing room door and Louise learns more about her mother than she would probably care to know.

“Gypsy” is a 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents, so with a heritage like that you know its probably going to be pretty good. For some reason its been 40 years since the show was in the West End and, following a barnstorming season at Chichester, it has arrived with all guns blazing. Director Jonathan Kent has produced the show that every fan of the musical wants to see, with a wonderful set by Anthony Ward, that recreates both the the glitz and glamour of old Vaudeville and the real squalor of backstage perfectly. The Savoy Theatre looks today as it did back in 1929 so is a wonderful backdrop for a story set in that era. From start to finish, there really is nothing that can be faulted in this staging of ‘“Gypsy”. In fact I even enjoyed ‘Little Lamb’, which I personally think is the poorest song in the show and had a tear in my eye a Louise sat alone on her bed wondering how old she really was.

Lara Pulver gave a wonderful performance as Louise, and it was amazing to watch her grow from the shy, reticent little thumb-sucker, ignored by her monster of a mother in favour of her young sister June, into a mature. confident woman able to dominate the stage with a flirtatious smile, having the audience in the palm of her hand. Peter Davidson’s Herbie was lovely to see. The consummate gentleman – forcedly reminding the backstage staff at the Burlesque House that there were ladies working in the theatre – his adoration of Rose meaning that he accepted her many faults in the hope that one day she would say ‘I Do’. Herbie is such a sweet guy that no matter what the reality of life, its impossible not to want the best for him.

In some ways, it must be a nightmare to be in the cast of a show like “Gypsy” because, on the whole, nobody knows who you are. With the exception of Momma Rose, Louise, Herbie and to a lesser extent June, there are really no other established characters within the show although everyone has their part in the story of “Gypsy” and, a director needs an amazingly talented set of performers to bring everyone to life and flesh out the areas around the principles lives and this production is filled to overflowing with such talent.

Momma Rose is a character that, even if you’ve never seen the film or show before, everyone is familiar with. The tyrannical archetype ‘stage mother’ Rose uses everything in her personal array of talents to push her daughters’ careers forward. In the blink of an eye, she switches from hectoring monster, bullying her way through, to an invading army storming the battlements and taking no prisoners, to flirtatious ingenue offering much – but giving away nothing – to the right people to get her way. Imelda Staunton is simply perfect in the role. From the first moment her voice enters the theatre, she totally dominates everything and everyone around her. Nobody really likes Momma Rose – she is a ruthless woman for whom other people are merely tools on her way to stardom – but you have to admire her. No matter what life throws at her, she bounces back and persists with her relentless drive. Even the loss of her favourite daughter doesn’t distract her for too long. Her heartwrenching rendition of that most iconic of musical numbers ‘Rose’s Turn’ was simply awesome – getting a standing ovation at its climax, something I’ve never seen in a theatre before. For a new generation discovering “Gypsy” for the first time, Imelda Staunton is going to be the Mamma Rose against which all others are measured and the audience rose as one to give her the standing ovation she so deserved when she came on for her curtain call.

Reading back you may have guessed I quite liked this show. Oh let’s be honest, this is undoubtedly the best show I have seen in a long, long time. Highlights for me? Pretty much everything from the opening of the overture to that awful moment when the theatre staff kicked us out and there was no more to see. “Gypsy” is on a limited run in the West End – I recommend you do anything you can to get a ticket before it ends and you kick yourself for missing out on one of the most amazing theatrical experiences you will ever have.
5 Star Rating

 

Review by Terry Eastham

Gypsy
Based on the true life memoirs of legendary burlesque entertainer, Gypsy Rose Lee, it tells the tale of Momma Rose and her two daughters, Baby June and Louise, trekking across America in their family vaudeville act. But times are changing, audiences are expecting more, and the two girls have their own ambitions in mind. The rise of burlesque is upon them, and nothing will ever be the same again for Momma Rose.

Imelda Staunton, who stars as the indomitable Momma Rose in the West End transfer of Jonathan Kent’s production of Gypsy, is joined by Lara Pulver and Gemma Sutton who reprise the roles of Louise and June respectively in the five star Chichester Festival Theatre production, while Peter Davison joins the cast to play Herbie. The cast also features Dan Burton as Tulsa, Billy Hartman as Uncle Jocko, Jack Chissick as Mr Goldstone, Anita Louise Combe as Tessie Tura, Harry Dickman as Pop, Lucinda Shaw as Mother, Roger Dipper as L.A., Louise Gold as Mazeppa, Clare Halse as Majorie May, Tom Hodgkins as Mr Weber, Kieran Jae as Yonkers, Julie Legrand as Electra, Danielle Morris as Geraldine, Luke Street as Little Rock, Damien Poole as Kansas, Lauren Hall as Delores and Natalie Woods as Agnes. Ensemble members include Liz Ewing, Lauren Ingram, Tom Murphy and Phillip Catchpole.

A musical fable with book by Arthur Laurents, Gypsy has music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, choreography by Stephen Mear, designs by Anthony Ward, musical direction and orchestration by Nicholas Skilbeck, lighting by Mark Henderson and sound by Paul Groothuis.

Savoy Theatre
Strand, London
WC2R 0ET

Performances
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm

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