When Stephen Sondheim personally asks you to play the role of Mama Rose, you say yes. Luckily, that is exactly what Imelda Staunton said. She stars in this glitzy revival of the Broadway classic GYPSY, running until November 8th at the Chichester Festival Theatre. The 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents was loosely based on the memoirs of the famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, focusing on her mother, Rose. It follows the hardships Rose faces while trying to raise two daughters, June and Louise, to perform onstage and casts an affectionate look on the hardships of a life in show business. It is regarded as one of the crowning achievements of mid-20th century musical theatre and contains legendary songs such as Some People, Rose’s Turn, Everything’s Coming Up Roses & Let Me Entertain You.
The show has been a staple on Broadway over the past few decades, with several revivals starring some of New York’s biggest and boldest stars in the title role. But the show hasn’t been seen on the West End since the 70’s.
A lot of great things have been said about the production since it opened, especially about Imelda Staunton’s performance as Mama Rose, but I didn’t want to allow myself to get too excited in case she didn’t live up to the expectations of such a huge role. But, I can now gladly state that Staunton gives the performance of a lifetime. She brings heaps of wit and vitality to the role but her desperation for success thrives throughout and her underlying threats and razor-sharp tongue cut through a scene quicker than you can believe. She becomes Rose; even when she isn’t on stage you can feel her presence. She draws you in with her superb characterisation, depth and emotional honesty, that you completely forget about the powerhouse voice she has and when paired with the dynamite orchestra, which is beautifully led by the energetic Nicholas Skilbeck, especially on her finale number Rose’s Turn, she is a tour de force. A performance like very few I have seen in my life, committed, multi-layered, emotionally volatile and truly sensational. She deserves every success she receives for this career defining performance.
Lara Pulver, perfectly captures the naive and hilariously clumsy Louise with a breathtaking voice and a transformation throughout the show that is mesmerisingly portrayed. Her performance of Let Me Entertain You at the end of Act II is truly heartbreaking, filled with a shamelessness and self- enjoyment so thrilling it’s impossible not to watch. Dan Burton swoons his way through All I Need Is The Girl, with impeccable technique and suaveness, making it impossible not to fall for him, while the confident and sassy burlesque dancers (played by Julie Legrand, Louise Gold and Anita Louise Combe), slink their way through the blunt but boisterous You Gotta Get A Gimmick with heaps of humour.
The rest of the ensemble, including a group of young and extremely animated children, brings boundless energy to the piece and marvellously carries out Stephen Mears’ classy interpretation of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. This is the first production where the choreographer has been given more control over the content, rather than just having to copy the original staging, especially in All I Need Is The Girl. As amazing as the original material is, and it is great to see the classic content being so vividly carried out on stage, it is nice to see some new work from Mears, allowing for the piece to feel fresher and more original than ever before. The glorious set and scenery are at one with the work and never once detract from the piece, seamlessly flowing from one scene to the next, allowing the work to be free and focused.
One of the joys of the show, which even after 55 years is still thrilling audiences all over the world, is seeing how incredible the original material is. The story of a mother and daughters relationship during travels across the American show business scene, is still as affecting as it has ever been. Personally, the complexity of the characters and their relations are to thank for the pieces success. Seeing such multi-layered personalities on stage allows for an honesty to flow throughout the show, allowing the music, lyrics, choreography and set to just float in and out when necessary, taking the emotions and dynamics of the characters to another level. The cast and creative team of this production have payed homage to the original material but brought a new lease of life and some powerhouse performances to this truly mesmerising and unforgettable piece of theatre, which surely deserves its inevitable West End transfer.
Reviewed by Oliver Williams
Gypsy is playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 8 November 2014