Friday, 24 April 2015

Gypsy really is the ticket to die for

Imelda Staunton with cute dog (Nessie/Scampie)
It’s not often that you can, with at least a modicum of justification – claim that some theatrical production or other is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event (the ephemeral nature of every single live performance apart).

But it’s not that great an exaggeration if we’re in the UK and talking about Gypsy, the 1959 show penned by Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (libretto), with a book by Arthur Laurents.

Remarkably, it took 14 years for it to see the light of day on the London stage in the first place (with Angela Lansbury), and has now taken a staggering 22 years to earn a revival.

Possibly it’s suffered from being so closely associated with Ethel Merman – she of ‘plants her feet, leans back and hits the back row of the auditorium’. How can you compete with such an icon? Who do you cast in that amazing role?

Of course, that’s all bound up with the legend – including how Merman didn’t get the role she created on stage when it was filmed in 1962, with the plum part of Rose going to Rosalind Russell.

I’d suggest that most British musical lovers who didn’t see that 1973 London production are mostly familiar with the show from either the recording of the original Broadway production or the film. In my case, it’s the former.

Yet setting all this aside, what makes Gypsy’s absence even more of a mystery is the place that it occupies in the musical theatre canon, being widely considered to be one of the greatest musicals ever written – if not the greatest.

So now that this Chichester transfer has landed in the West End we have an opportunity to assess the vehicle itself, together with a production that has itself garnered massive praise last autumn.

Both have a question to answer: is the hyperbole fair?

For anyone who doesn’t know, the plot – based on a true story – sees Rose, the apotheosis of pushy showbiz mothers, trying to drive her two daughters to vaudeville success.

But vaudeville is dying, the act is nauseatingly bad and, when the ‘talented’ one of her daughters – ‘Baby June – quits, everything looks over for Rose’s dream.

She cannot give up, though, and pushes on, replicating the same act, but with her other daughter, Louise, now taking centre stage.

And when she forces Louise to fill in for a missing performer at a down-at-heel burlesque theatre, you know that it’ll end in tears.

But the tears are not Louise’s, who is ultimately liberated by the experience, learning that shes a sexy, grown woman, instead of the clunky, talentless child that she had been lulled into believing herself to be.

With daughter freeing herself from her mother’s smothering grasp and embracing stardom for herself, it is Rose that is left to realise that she has lost everything.

Rose is a magnificent creation in the tradition of the classic tragic hero. Deeply flawed, she’s been described as a musical theatre answer to Lear, but there are also valid comparisons with Brecht’s Mother Courage: since both see their children as commodities, and both lose them as a result.

Is Rose really utterly selfish, trying to live her own thwarted dreams vicariously through her children or is she a genuinely loving mother, or somewhere in between?

And there you have an illustration of the complexity of Rose. Thus the audience cannot see her simply, but has to engage with that character and with the story on a different level to that of many musicals.

Peter Davison and Imelda Staunton
Not that the creative team neglected the smaller roles. Herbie, who becomes both an agent for the troupe and also Rose’s lover (on a promise to become husband number four), has depth about him too.

And then, of course, there is Louise, who becomes the eponymous Gypsy of the title, and who has to develop from gauche tomboy to sophisticated stripteaser.

Indeed, what do you expect when that team included a Sondheim? No other writer – as composer, as librettist and as both – has ever, so consistently, created works of musical theatre that address real human emotions and flaws to the degree that he has.

There are some stonkingly great songs here: Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Let Me Entertain You and Together among them. Styne came up with a perfect Broadway score – a blessing, perhaps, of Merman saying she’d refuse the role if someone as unknown as Sondheim was allowed to write the music.

Given that Sondheim had already been asked to do precisely that – and had accepted – this could have been disastrous. Fortunately, his mentor, the great Oscar Hammerstein II, convinced him to work with Styne as lyricist.

And it paid off, because the lyrics are superb.

But now to look at this production specifically.

Jonathan Kent’s direction is top-notch, while Anthony Ward’s work on set and costumes is also excellent.

On the performances, first, a mention for Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand as the three strippers who explain to Louise that You Gotta Get A Gimmick. It’s a brilliant, funny routine – retaining, indeed, the original Jermone Robbins choreography.

Lara Pulver is excellent as Louise: utterly convincing both as the clunky child and the sophisticated stripper.

Peter Davison is a fine Herbie, giving some grounded warmth to proceedings. No, he’s no great singer – but neither were Jack Klugman or Karl Malden in the original stage production and film.

And then we come to Imelda Staunton as Rose.

Polish the awards right now.

This is a stupendous, electrifying performance.

The Other Half said that he’d never seen a theatrical denouement as powerful since seeing Glenda Jackson do Mother Courage at the Mermaid – and that’s a long time ago and a massive compliment.

Lara Pulver and Imelda Staunton
She ranges from the wheedling to the fun-loving to the victimised to the angry and the self-deluded with consummate ease. The breakdown scene at the end is utterly gut-wrenching.

This reading of Rose is a phenomenally subtle, detailed and powerful one.

Vocally, Staunton can do everything from the gentle right up to the belters. She’s hardly new to Sondheim – having played the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, (1990-’91) as well as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd just three years ago. Indeed, it was after seeing that performance that Sondheim himself told her that she had to play Rose.

She takes the show and makes it absolutely her own – just as Gypsy demands.

Rarely will you see a standing ovation even before the piece has entirely finished, but as the final note of Rose’s Turn  dies away, it is impossible not to rise.

This is musical theatre with knobs on. And then with gilt on the knobs.  And then with gilt on the gilt. The run has now been extended until November – if you haven’t got the clue yet, let me put it simply: get a ticket if you possibly can.

And in the remote case that I haven’t made myself clear: Gypsy is one of the very best things to arrive in the West End for years, so go and see it!

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