Gypsy – Chichester Festival Theatre

Roy Tan

Kevin Whately and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture: Roy Tan

Gypsy continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 8 November.

Gypsy is considered to be the best showbiz musical of all time and this production proves it. The news that Imelda Staunton was to be reunited with Jonathan Kent, who directed her in Sweeney Todd, created quite a buzz and raised very high expectations.

Those expectations are well and truly exceeded right from the start. The 15-piece orchestra sets the bar high with an explosive delivery of the overture rewarded with such enthusiasm from the audience that it teeters on the edge of receiving its own standing ovation.

Opening on Broadway in 1959, Gypsy was a vehicle for Ethel Merman who objected to the music being written by Stephen Sondheim – then only known for his work as lyricist on West Side Story. The task went to the more established Jule Styne with Sondheim providing the lyrics. With the book by Arthur Laurents, this legendry trio produced a dynamic and potent piece of musical theatre.

Although the story concerns the childhood of Gypsy Rose Lee and her eventual transformation into a world famous striptease artist, the show is all about her mother Rose – the mother of all showbiz mothers. Brash, pushy and manipulative as she drags her two young daughters June and Louise around America with a tacky variety act, Rose can never accept that the girls are growing up – she even keeps their true ages from them. She is obsessed with pushing June into stardom at a time when vaudeville is dying. When June eventually walks out, she turns her attention to the often neglected and less talented Louise. It is only after drifting into striptease that Louise blossoms, achieving for herself the stardom that Rose has always striven for.

The musical is not just a eulogy to the dying world of vaudeville, but a painful study of mother/child relationships, with Mama Rose’s obsessive ambition replacing love. But the show is also great fun, full of comedy and blessed with a tremendous score.

Kent and his creative team set the show within a proscenium theatre, complete with an orchestra pit out front. The direction does not falter – with great production numbers choreographed by Stephen Mear, complemented by subtle interchanges and sensitive moments. He has also cast it well with all of the performers doing full justice to the piece.

Lara Pulver skilfully develops the role of Louise from a shy, mousy, young tomboy into Gypsy Rose, a confident and sassy artist, who at last can stand up to her mother and tell her to let go. The contrast achieved is astonishing as she moves into womanhood and realises that she is actually pretty. She leaves behind the poignancy of ‘Little Lamb’ that has her wondering what her true age is, and delivers the cheekiness of her audience patter in the strip routines while singing a raunchy version of the cheesy ‘Let Me Entertain You’ from the childhood act.

Kevin Whately lets his hair down as he escapes from his TV persona to play the loyal Herbie. It is refreshing to see him singing, dancing and obviously enjoying himself, but it might be best it he doesn’t give up the day job!

From a strong cast young Georgia Pemberton stands out as the precocious infant Baby June, but it is the comedy number ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’ that produces the biggest laughs of the night. This hilarious lesson in stripping has three aging artistes, led by the dominating figure of Louise Gold and her trumpet, instructing Louise in their art.

The oft quoted thought that the challenging role of Mama Rose is musical theatre’s equivalent of King Lear may be a good analogy, but it is an exaggerated one.

Imelda Staunton is magnificent as Rose, a bulldozing monster, ignorant of the damage she creates and feelings she hurts, pushing her children to achieve the fame that she desires for herself. Yet Staunton punctuates her ferociousness with moments of comedy, vulnerability and even flirtatious sexuality. Her powerful voice belies her small frame, out of which she gives a colossal performance. If there are any doubts that she wouldn’t be big enough to fill Merman’s shoes, they are swiftly removed.

In ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, which closes Act I, she imbues moments of insanity that hint at the breakdown to come. In the final tour de force number ‘Rose’s Turn’ her dream as a performer becomes a nightmare.

Barrie Jerram

www.cft.org.uk/gypsy

Readers may also be interested in:

Interview – choreographer Stephen Mear reveals all about Gypsy 

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