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Savoy Theatre, London

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.

  • Musical
  • Boook by Arthur Laurents
  • Music by Jule Styne
  • Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
  • Directed by Jonathan Kent
  • Cast Includes: Imelda Staunton, Lara Pulver, Peter Davison, Dan Burton, Natalie Woods, Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold
  • Savoy Theatre, London
  • Until 28 November 2015
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 30 April 2015

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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2 Responses

  1. Owen Davies

    ‘Gypsy’ is the wrong title for this show. It should be ‘Momma Rose’. It’s the story of Rose Hovick and her daughters – she is the mother from hell who pushes her daughters around the Vaudeville circuit of 1920s America towards “stardom”. After the younger, more talented daughter falls by the wayside, the older daughter struggles on in the wake of her horrific mother and then – miraculously – recreates herself as Gypsy Rose Lee, the best known stripper of her generation. But it’s the extraordinary figure of Momma Rose who dominates the story and it is Imelda Staunton’s marvelous performance in the role in this production that anchors the whole show.

    It’s difficult to critique a show that is clearly an enormous hit with the public and has a lot of great performances – on the night I was there Imelda Staunton got an instant standing ovation at the end though, for my money, Lara Pulver as Louise is every bit as good. It’s difficult to critique a show that has so many wonderful numbers – including ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, and ‘That’s Entertainment’. But here goes – this show has no heart. Momma Rose is a monster of selfishness and, even when she is forced to admit it at the end of the show, there is no sense of redemption – she is a hard-hearted abuser of all around her, children and adults, and she is going to stay that way. Her artistic vision is tawdry and myopic – all around her know that Vaudeville is dead but she cannot see it. And when the last chance of vicarious stardom is thrown in her path, she readily sacrifices her reluctant daughter to the shame of a burlesque show that she hates. The fact that Louise discovers a talent for stripping is an entirely unconvincing denouement – the timid Louise of the ‘Toreadorables’ and the super-confident Gypsy, star of the striptease, are not the same person.

    All the performers – except a mis-cast Peter Davison – deliver the musical numbers with style and panache. The children who open the show are superb, and outstanding is Scarlet Roche who plays Baby June. The tawdry strippers of the burlesque show – where the Toreadorables are mistakenly booked and where Louise discovers the Gypsy in her soul – are extraordinary, sad and grotesque, funny and sexy, all at the same time.

    The staging is sharp and speedy, the lighting being particularly atmospheric. The overall effect is of a hugely professional production packed with fine performers giving it their all but masking the fact that this a show with a lack of humanity at its core. Go and see it, if you can get a ticket, for the pleasure of seeing a famous musical done with style and verve – but don’t expect to learn anything about the human condition. Go to Carousel or South Pacific if you want that.

  2. Mel Cooper

    GYPSY is based on the actual memoirs of GYPSY ROSE LEE and should, perhaps, be read in conjunction with seeing the show. The musical itself is correctly named because in the end it is about Gypsy as a pivotal character if not necessarily as the central protagonist. But she is damned near an equal protagonist in the tale and the surprise/gimmick/ delight comes from her turning out to be the really big star. Also, of course, if we are paying attention, she is very intelligent as well as having beauty, charm and quite a lot of the drive of Mamma Rose by the end. I remember seeing her in shows, including playing Pirate Jenny inThe Threepenny Opera, when I was very young and after the success of the musical Gypsy focused new attention on her; and she was, to put it mildly, astoundingly charismatic and a born entertainer. As for the show Gypsy itself, Mama Rose is, for me, a character of great sympathy because of the way she is driven and because she is betting relentlessly on a dying horse (Vaudeville) and because she is struggling through the Depression. Also in the end this is a musical and the music and lyrics carry and express the emotion.

    Imelda Staunton manages to convey that mixture of hysteria, fear, bravado and matriarchal ambition that are necessary; but also moments of real warmth. I agree that Lara Pulver is superb; and I think she is absolutely convincing as a young woman who finds she does have beauty and a talent and is able to capitalise on that talent swiftly once it is discovered. She is as hungry as Madame Rose for success and adulation; and to make up for lost time by finding love and admiration in a world where she knows about laughing at herself first; and by learning French and becoming a society girl.

    Besides, Gypsy is a true story. It doesn’t help if you are not convinced by the ending because that was the way it all worked out. Read the book! and if you are curious about Gypsy Rose Lee and why the story works, then read the memoir she wrote upon which the show is based and also the book The February House by Sherill Tippins.


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