'Gypsy': Theater Review

Johan Persson
Imelda Staunton, center, in 'Gypsy'
Striking a judicious balance between traditional musical showmanship and a darker sensibility, this exemplary production is a pleaser for all kinds of crowds

Imelda Staunton plays the ultimate stage mother in director Jonathan Kent's revival of the classic musical, which just transferred to London's West End.

With its backstage shenanigans, dark-tinged striver's success story, and characters perpetually on the road, Gypsy is arguably, in thematic terms, the quintessential American musical. Perhaps that's one reason why, despite the evergreen familiarity of its songs (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Jule Styne), it is much less often revived in Britain than on its native soil. Plus stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired the wry book by Arthur Laurents, was never a household name in the U.K. the way she was Stateside. What does a country that has music hall and Carry On films need with burlesque?

However, this latest interpretation, a transfer from Chichester Festival Theatre to London's West End, may change that. Showcasing a finely calibrated belter of a performance by Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose, this ecstatically well-received production (which reteams the star with her Sweeney Todd director Jonathan Kent), looks set to run for miles. Cannily splitting the difference between traditional showmanship and the bleaker undertones of recent interpretations like the 2003 Sam Mendes-Bernadette Peters version on Broadway, it's a work that will appeal to theater geeks, camp followers and casual viewers alike.

The action is played out on a set of sliding flats that's all exaggerated, forced-perspective angles laden with period props, and Anthony Ward's costume and set design capture the razzmatazz, shabby spirit of vaudeville just before it died. Supplemented occasionally by old-movie projections, the palette in the first act is all dusty, rusty sepia tones, suggesting how already old-fashioned and faded the milieu is that Momma Rose is so desperate to break her two young daughters into. Staunton makes her entrance as the stage mother from hell in the first scene by walking down an auditorium aisle, a touch that echoes the fourth-wall breaking style that will make her older daughter famous years later.

Petite and pugnacious, Staunton's dowdier Rose is not a frustrated glamor puss like Rosalind Russell's version in the 1962 film adaptation, nor a fragile flower like Peters'. Instead, her Rose is a yapping, growling mutt: half terrier like the Yorkie tucked under her arm, half pitbull. Staunton is a seasoned musical theater performer whose singing voice is booming and bright, but she keeps her powder dry and the color muted until the big numbers in the second half — as if Rose were trying to keep a lid on it to allow her girls to shine. She's a mother-manager first and foremost, her hidden performer instincts taped down deep inside until they burst forth with a deeply poignant version of "Rose's Turn" at the end as her sanity finally snaps.

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The girls certainly shine, especially the astonishingly accomplished Scarlett Roche, who played Baby June at the performance caught with a pyrotechnic display of forced-stage smiles, en pointe prancing, and coy yips of self-satisfaction. Lara Wollington holds her own with moving poise as the perpetually upstaged Baby Louise, and the two young actors mesh convincingly with the mannerisms of their older versions, played by Gemma Sutton as almost-exhausted June and Lara Pulver as Louise. The latter take over the roles seamlessly during the show-stopping "Let Me Entertain You" number, a proper coup de théâtre transition that won spontaneous applause on press night.  

Throughout, Kent keeps the pace peppy and brisk, and blocks the performers into tableau-like poses, often in a chorus-line-like procession but with Louise off to the side on her own, particularly in the fizzy "Mr. Goldstone" number. It underscores her outsider status as the one supposedly without talent, and Pulver (known to TV viewers as femme fatale Irene Adler in the BBC's Sherlock) bolsters the impression by playing the role in a more naturalistic register than the others. She manages with a few key line readings and a whipped-dog posture to suggest the battered ego of an abused child, even if, with her feline features (somewhat reminiscent of Emma Stone) and elegant angularity, it's a little hard to buy her as an overlooked wallflower. But Pulver's stunning looks pay dividends when she transforms into Gypsy Rose Lee in the second half, her vocal pitch dropping in direct proportion to her growing, brassy confidence.

This production keeps in the original happy ending with the final seeming rapprochement between Louise and her mother, but there's a telling sliver of ice in Pulver's delivery that suggests she's only humoring the old lady, whom she'll probably toss away soon like a stripper's glove.

Rounding out the cast, Peter Davison is likeable and game as Rose's agent boyfriend Herbie, his height and solidity forming a nice contrast to Staunton's diminutive stature, while Dan Burton as chorus-boy Tulsa blows the doors off, as per tradition, with his big number, "All I Need Is the Girl." Providing the luridly colored icing on the ensemble cake, Anita Louise CombeLouise Gold and Julie Legrand are delicious as the troika of seasoned pros in the house of burlesque where Louise meets her destiny. With Amazonian exemplars like these, who wouldn't want to become a stripper?

Cast: Imelda Staunton, Lara Pulver, Peter Davison, Gemma Sutton, Lara Wollington, Scarlett Roche, Dan Burton, Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold, Julie Legrand
Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Jonathan Kent
Choreographers: Stephen Mear, Jerome Robbins
Set and costume designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
A Chichester Festival Theatre production, presented by Michael Harrison and David Ian with Neil Laidlaw, Lee Dean, Tulchin/Bartner Productions, Michael Watt, Charles Diamond/Damian Arnold, Patrick Catullo/Aaron Glick, Ramin Sabi/Seaview Productions, Ambassador Theatre Group

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