GYPSY by Sondheim

© Johan Persson

Chichester Festival Theatre

What a phenomenal season Chichester Festival Theatre and its director, Jonathan Church is having.

Of the last three things I have seen there, each has left me tearful with emotion or joy. How often can you say that happens? Well certainly not to me! Rare indeed and rarer for it to keep on happening!

So what is it that is triggering this lachrymose reaction?

Well, in the case of Mark Hayhurst’s Taken at Midnight (now transferring to the West End), it was nerve endings driven raw by the politics of the personal and production values.

With Gypsy – interestingly another ode to maternal love if of an entirely different variety – the nerve endings start tingling almost from the off.

One of the great classic Broadway musicals, those brazen chords by Jule Styne (music) as the orchestra limber up in the Overture let you know immediately you’re right in the heart of razzamataz Broadway showbiz, where the lights shine brighter, the feathers are bigger and everything sings of a world of glitz and dreams.

Dreams. Those Broadway musicals were built on dreams: of making it big, becoming a `Star’ – just like today’s X-Factor hopefuls.

Gypsy was born in 1959 with an impeccable pedigree. Music by Styne (Tynan called him one of the most persistently under-rated of modern popular composers), book by Arthur Laurents (taken from Gypsy Rose Lee’s own memoir) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, one of his earliest creations. Listen carefully as Rose, mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, draws herself up for her finale. The jagged discordance of words seemingly battling against notes seems to herald the style of so many later Sondheim songs, from Company through Sweeney Todd to Assassins.

The story of a termagent stage mother – Rose Hovick is the mother of all stage mothers – Rose is determined to get her girls up and out and into the big time. In the dying years of vaudeville that meant touting them round the country with song and dance routines as chauvinistic and sugary as American apple pie.

But Gypsy has it all – precocious youngsters, tawdry routines, a rags to riches story and show tunes that range from the legendary, thumping Let Me Entertain You, Everything’s Coming Up Roses to the sweeter You’ll Never Get Away From Me, Together Wherever We go and much more.

Jonathan Kent’s slick, brilliantly paced production with Stephen Mears choreography delivers it all. But most of all – and the reason why this particular production of Gypsy exists – is because it needs a dynamo of a performer to play Rose. And this Chichester delivers in the shape of Imelda Staunton.

Staunton has been a steadily developing National Treasure for some time now but never has a performance proved as definitive as this one. She simply overwhelms with a voice that knocks spots off most of today’s younger musical singers with its clarity, purity of tone and strength. She can belt with the best of them but she can also modulate and her precision in pointing either spoken or singing lines is a thing of beauty.

By the time she comes to her big number – Rose’s turn – in which she sets out to prove she could have been better than any of her girls had the time been right but then discovers she ain’t quite got it – Staunton has wrung our withers.

A great, great performer, Kevin Whately turns in a remarkably affecting performance as her long-suffering, exasperated lover-cum-agent, Herbie. But there is also a revelatory, knockdown performance too from Lara Pulver as the faint-hearted Louise, playing second fiddle to her blonde younger sister, Baby June, until happenchance lands her in Burlesque and from nervous fledgling we see her developing into the glamorous, independent-minded, confident Gypsy Rose Lee.

A word of praise too for Julie Legrand, Louise Gold and Anita Louise Combe who inject humour and satirical edge as the three burlesque performers teaching the ingénue Gypsy Rose Lee, You Gotta Get a Gimmick – if you’re gonna get ahead…And they do.

Wonderful stuff. I’ll eat my hat if it doesn’t transfer. Will the Staunton voice hold out?
You betcha!

Gypsy plays in the Chichester Festival Theatre to Nov 8 and the season continues through to Jan 3, 2015 with Terrence McNally’s Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians in a new adaptation by Bryony Lavery.

First published in Londongrip Oct 2014