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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
GYPSY
at Chichester Festival Theatre

BORN ENTERTAINERS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Kevin Whately and Imelda Staunton/ Ph: Johan Persson

“Curtain up! Light the lights! You got nothing to hit but the heights,” wrote Stephen Sondheim to music by Jule Styne in Gypsy, unarguably one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. The heights, I’m happy to report, are hit by the Chichester Festival’s terrific revival of this ongoing 1959 classic eclipsing recent Broadway revivals starring Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone.
 
Closely following on the heels of that other imperishable masterpiece, Guys and Dolls, a West End transfer is inevitable – or should be, if only to allow the widest possible audience to savour the powerhouse central performance of its star, Imelda Staunton.
 
For the uninitiated, Staunton plays Madam Rose, the stage mother from Hades who, in the dying years of vaudeville, has been touring the same tacky kiddie act for a decade or so hoping to make a star out of its headline attraction, her daughter Baby June, a mace-twirling moppet who asks audiences in every flea-pit theater across the States to “Let Me Entertain You.” And when, at age 15, June elopes with Tulsa, one of the male dancers in the act, an undaunted Rose determines to have her less talented daughter Louise take her place.
 
In time, Louise grows up to be the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose celebrity springs from the “sophistication” (or gimmick) of an act in which she actually reveals very little indeed. She ultimately becomes the star her mother always dreamed of being herself.
 
I never saw the legendary Ethel Merman, who created the role of Rose on Broadway, but, having subsequently seen her a couple of times on stage, she never possessed the touching vulnerability that Staunton brings to the part. 
 
Sure, Madam Rose is loud, bossy, pushy and utterly determined to get her way regardless, but she’s also a dreamer with a heart, a quality Merman’s work never displayed. I cannot imagine her ever bringing a lump to the throat or leaving you moist-eyed as Staunton does in the climactic "Rose’s Turn," followed by the short, moving scene that closes the show. This is a truly great performance that crowns Chichester’s remarkable year in glory.
 
All the lead performers are excellent. Lara Pulver is touching as the adult Louise. Gemma Sutton is a feisty June. As Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering lover-cum-business manager, Kevin Whatley draws maximum mileage from the least showy role in Arthur Laurent’s otherwise exemplary book.
 
Jonathan Kent’s direction, assisted by designer Anthony Ward’s sets, atmospherically captures the seedy milieu of the vaudeville circuit (from the early 1920s to the early 1930s) and the rundown “digs” that went with it. Stephen Mear’s choreography remains faithful to Jerome Robbins’ brilliant original blueprint.
 
A couple of cavils: The number "All I Need Is the Girl," in which Tulsa (Kieran Kae) tries out a new dance routine, marginalises Louise, who is watching him (mostly in darkness), when she should be seen yearning to be that girl. It is only at the very end that she joins him for an unconvincing “big finish.” Also failing to bring the house down, which it should, is "You’ve Got to Have a Gimmick," in which three strippers demonstrate their art to the virginal Louise. As none of them can bump or grind with much conviction, this brilliant showstopper, one of the best ever written, doesn’t have the impact it should. Also, the dressing-room setting in which it is staged feels too cramped. That apart, this Gypsy is something to see, and its leading lady someone to treasure.

 


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