If you feel like a trip back to the Broadway of 1959, you must definitely see the production of Gypsy that recently opened at the Savoy Theatre. Jonathan Kent’s meticulous production recreates the original approach but also glosses the characters with real subtlety so that both the “play” or book and the relevant songs and show numbers are balanced perfectly against each other. The imaginative new orchestrations by Nicholas Skilbeck and Tom Kelly are brilliantly and brightly played by a superb pit band under Skilbeck that certainly has the right pulse and sound; and that reminds you what a brilliant composer Jule Styne was.
This is, I would say, is Styne’s most consistently apt score; and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents are as skilled and gripping as anything they ever did.
There are many good reasons to revive this show, originally written for Ethel Merman; and one of the most compelling is having Imelda Staunton in Merman’s part as Mama Rose. She has most of the stentorian tones in her voice that are needed for the role as originally written and her interpretation of the brassy Madame Rose has an underpinning of pathos and pain that are superbly touching at unexpected moments.
But the entire cast is superb. Lara Pulver manages the transition from the shy, wallflower Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee very convincingly – and also has a lovely voice; Peter Davison is charming and appealing as Herbie; and Gemma Sutton is excellent as the appalling, frustrated and hardened older Dainty June. Special mention should also be made of Dan Burton’s Tulsa and his standout dance routine. As for the number “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand are delightful as Tessie Tura and Electra while the uber-talented Louise Gold is a superb trumpet blowing Miss Mazeppa. She can not only bump and grind but has managed to inject the perfect rasp into her voice for the part. The three strippers are a highlight of a show that is inventive and generous in its stagecraft. The material never flags; and it also makes one want to read the actual memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee upon which this musical is based.
I could quibble that the production is traditional and not particularly revelatory of anything new about the show but with such an energetic and exceptionally strong casting and such attention to detail both musically and dramatically, it would be invidious.
If you are looking for a reliable night of music theatre that also tells a terrific story via some memorable performances and with a central star turn that is as good as it gets, this is the show for you.
Of course, people who only know Staunton as Vera Drake or from the Harry Potter films will probably surprised that she is a subtle and classy musical comedy star; but those of us who saw her as a virtually definitive Miss Adelaide in the National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls years ago will simply be delighted to revisit aspects of her talent that do not get enough attention or exercising. Another bonus of the evening is the theatre itself, the Savoy being one of the most interesting venues in the West End with its silver-coated art deco design.
The Gypsy production itself is a fine example of the current trend in the UK for revivals of 20th century theatre pieces that evoke the approach of the first production. I just wish that there were talents out there also concentrating on creating new material for people like Staunton or Pulver and building original and contemporary shows on them the way they used to for Mary Martin or Ethel Merman.
Read the director’s Jonathan Kent interview here.