Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre is astonishing. It is so impressive it even received a standing ovation before the end of the show! Director Jonathan Kent keeps the production simple but lets the characters drive the show, and with the remarkable Imelda Staunton playing Momma Rose – the epitome of the ultimate stage mother – this is a wise choice.
In Gypsy, Momma Rose drags her two children, June and Louise, around venue to venue, with the goal of making Baby June (her youngest daughter) a star, whilst Louise (who later becomes famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee) is neglected and left playing the background parts. Momma Rose would sacrifice anything to make this dream of stardom come true; consequently we see her vaudeville act journey through back alley theatres and finally to the height of burlesque success – but at what cost?
Gypsy is quite a harrowing story and a true reflection of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, the American burlesque entertainer famous for her striptease act whose 1957 memoir is the basis for the show. This means the entire production has a wonderful American gumption to it. I was surprised that such an old musical isn’t outdated at all. However, Gypsy still has the elegance of a classic musical, and it opens with a wonderful overture and contains an entr’acte that are both sublime. Musical director Nicholas Skilbeck weaves out these teasers of the songs so that even before you hear them fully they are a hit – everyone came away humming.
Staunton’s opening number ‘Some People’ has guts and pluck, and in that opening song reveals her character’s entire motivations. Staunton surprises you as her character Momma Rose could be very unlikeable in the wrong hands. She is rude and hot-headed, yet the love she receives from others is what makes you fall in love with her too, especially the relationship between Momma Rose and Herbie, played artfully by Peter Davison. Herbie is such an honest gentleman, and is deeply in love with Momma Rose; all he wants to do is marry her. She entices him along with this promise to be a good wife one day, just as soon as her dream comes true. Herbie wants to give her everything, for her to sit back and be taken care of. Yet while this might be wonderful for some people and especially expected in that era, by Momma Rose’s song you know she is just not “some people”. Yet the pairing of the couple is endearing: you root for their success and, when Momma Rose just can’t let go of her dream, it’s devastating to see that relationship end.
Momma Rose’s utter determination is scary and you can believe why it’s so hard for anyone to say no to her, especially when Staunton looks them dead in the eye with such a threatening face. In addition, Staunton’s vocal ability is astonishing. With such power and emotion she delivers one perfect song after another. There is not one note missed nor one word lost. The climax of the production comes on the song ‘Rose’s Turn’, sung by Staunton alone. It is just an astonishing piece of theatre: the sheer power and commitment of her performance is overwhelming. As she sings from her guts, Staunton struts around the stage but heartbreakingly crumbles, and finally breaks. Seeing an actor take such risks is electrifying to watch.
Another delight is the hysterical vaudeville scenes: to hint at the level of talent involved in these stage acts, a lot of them contain a cow costume. The pathetic situation of Momma Rose is played out beautifully in these scene. The moments where Momma Rose would creep on stage in the background as her children are performing and hand them their dropped cane or hat are simply hysterical. Combined with the children’s pained expressions on their faces and the desperation to get the awful dance routines right, it is agonising yet amusing to watch.
A particular piece of choreography that stands out is performed by Dan Burton as Tulsa. He dances under a moonlight backdrop effortlessly, with grace and dynamism, his fluid movements screaming of the styling of the original choreographer Jerome Robbins. The sweet Lara Pulver also plays Louise with aplomb, taking her character from a naive, shy girl swiftly to the tantalising burlesque star that was Gypsy Rose Lee.
Ultimately Momma Rose doesn’t want to be just anyone and drives everyone she loves away because of her constant enterprising. The story of a mother who could not let go of her dream and sacrificed everything for it, Gypsy lets the audience see a woman who truly exposes her soul to the ugly truth of wanting to ‘make it’ in this world and who she really does it for.
Gypsy is playing at the Savoy Theatre until 18 July. For more information and tickets see ATG tickets website.