Gypsy was one of the productions on my Chichester list last year but it was one that I failed to see. I had a second chance last week, due to the show recently opening in London’s West End at the Savoy Theatre, to universal praise.
It is certainly a less light hearted musical in comparison to many of the big name shows in London at the moment and to some extent, is a lesser known show in the UK (it has not been seen in the West End since its premiere in 1973). The show is based on the memoirs of famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, turned in to a musical by Stephen Sondheim, with music by Jule Styne. However the musical’s focus is on her early life as a childhood vaudeville performer, together with her younger sister June, steered by their mightily determined mother Momma Rose (Imelda Staunton). It’s certainly not an easy life, fighting for every booking to make money, which becomes even more intense as the vaudeville scene starts to fade and June, her mother’s favourite and focus, leaves the act. It is then that she (real name Louise, played by Lara Pulver), becomes the central focus for her mother’s ambitious plans.
I admit I did find it rather slow to begin with, but the sheer force of Imelda Staunton soon had me drawn in. She is absolutely brilliant in this production. I thought she was at her finest in Sweeney Todd, but clearly not – some of the songs she belts out and the notes she hits are astonishing! Rose is not really a likeable character – she’s domineering, pushy, quite cruel (in her lack of affection towards Louise), but you cannot help but admire her determination, fiery spirit and nerve to take a risk and with Staunton in the role, you are even touched by her vulnerabilities and are cheering for her by the end (almost certainly standing up with the rest of the theatre).
Lara Pulver handles the character of Louise well, although it’s a bit of a strange role, as she spends quite a lot of time being overshadowed and in the background, which makes her feel a bit flat as a character. It’s when she comes in to her own as Gypsy that she becomes much more interesting and I wish the musical had spent more time on this part of the story. However Pulver has a great voice and chemistry with both Staunton and Peter Davison’s Herbie, their loyal agent. Davison doesn’t have the strongest voice (but I knew that from Legally Blonde). However, he has a charm and a tenderness that works well for Herbie, who at times you’re astonished is willing to put up with Momma Rose’s single-mindedness.
The sets aren’t as elaborate as some musicals, but they certainly work wonderfully at helping to capture the essence of vaudeville at that time and the musical has some lovely musical numbers.
I can’t say it’s the best musical I’ve ever seen, but it’s a superb production of this, perhaps, lesser known show and I’d recommend everyone try and see Imelda Staunton in what will no doubt be another (deservedly) award-winning performance.
Gypsy continues its run at the Savoy Theatre in London until 28th November 2015. For more information and tickets, visit the show’s website.