Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jules Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Choreography by Stephen Mear
Musical Director Nicholas Skilbeck
Chichester Festival Theatre
Saturday 18th October 2014, matinee
Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose
Kevin Whately as Herbie, the manager
Lara Pulver as Louise
Gemma Sutton as June
It’s funny how fortune tellers at country fairs and holiday resorts like to call themselves ‘Gypsy Rose Lee.’ The original Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970) was a striptease artist in burlesque shows, not a fortune teller. The stage musical of Gypsy has two lines about palm reading. Period. The 1959 musical was based on her memoirs, published in 1957. It was filmed twice, in 1962 (with Natalie Wood as Louise aka Gypsy Rose Lee) and most faithfully in 1993 where the focus was firmly on the stage mom to beat all stage moms, Momma Rose, played by Bette Midler. She won the Golden Globe for her performance. That was made for TV in the USA, but released theatrically elsewhere. The Chichester 2014 production is the first major stage version in Britain for forty years. It ran in 1973 and 1974 with Angela Lansbury as Momma Rose. The absence is surprising, as there have been two major Broadway revivals in a decade. The image on all the publicity evokes the films, but there is no similar image in the production, as so often.
I’m not a great fan of musicals. Perhaps it’s because my interest in music started in the late 1950s when musical soundtracks dominated the LP charts to overkill level. My mum loved them. I would go to see West Side Story performed by anyone at all, but would decline free tickets to either The Chorus Line or Guys and Dolls and I have seen both twice. I always feel you have the three great songs everyone knows, then a lot of linking explanatory lyrics set to generic musical melodies. When I do get to see musicals, I’m always amazed at the high standards of dancing and musical accompaniment.
Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose
This is a highly-acclaimed production with five stars from four of the five major reviewers, and rightly so. A huge cast. Fifteen piece orchestra. Ever-changing sets. I had known that Imelda Staunton was one of our greatest actresses. I had never realized that she is also a truly great stage singer too. This is the magic combination that means so many reviews give it five star ratings. Usually, with such a major singing role, you have to cast first on singing ability. Here you have a star who has everything as an actor AND everything as a singer. I think the point to note is the finish of Act One where Imelda Staunton sings Everything’s Coming Up Roses (the big song in Gypsy). She is singing it against all odds. Her daughter, the star of her cheesy vaudeville act, Baby June, has eloped with a dancer. She has to turn all her pushy power onto her other daughter, Louise, who manifestly is no star, confined mainly to playing half the pantomime cow in the act. She sings the song with utter desperation, beating her hands together frantically, expressing the exact opposite meaning to the lyric. It’s a tour de force which brought the house down. I thought, ‘You’ll never see another musical performance this good again!’ I was proved wrong when she equalled it with the song Rose’s Turn at the end of Act Two … an end which brought an instant 90% standing ovation. You know when you have to leap to your feet. The only bigger ovation I’ve seen in these years of reviews was The Book of Mormon, which was 100% … I can judge accurately as we were in the back row for that.
Stage musicals are one of the American art forms of the twentieth century. The classics are American, with a few British additions like Oliver! I normally listen attentively for British actors doing American accents and not quite making it, but I think you put that outside for musicals. They’re an American form. They have huge casts. Most, if not all, of the actors will be British, and in a musical context I can live with it in a way I can’t with stage drama.
Kevin Whately as Herbie, their agent, and Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose
Gypsy is an intriguing story, more so because a lot of the humour is that Momma Rose’s vaudeville creations are so excruciatingly bad that they’re good. This is hard to play and in the programme notes, the choreographer, Stephen Mear, explains that in these sections, it had to look as if Momma Rose had choreographed it, not him. Briefly the act centres on Baby June, a Shirley Temple cutesy little girl doing high kicking routines, singing in a little girlie voice and doing the splits. Louise the other daughter, has to dress as a boy. Eventually a supporting cast of boys, the Newsboys, is recruited and Louise is one of them. The child actor doing the young Baby June is incredibly good. Extremely funny, she can sing, act AND do the splits.
There is a fabulous transition scene to strobes where in a dance number the adult versions replace the child versions in the dance, so that it begins with the kids and ends with the adults. The adult Baby June has to do the splits too. The really hard part must be later when Louise has to try to do the splits and fails at 80%. I’m told that’s incredibly hard as you have to fail (and hold it) after the “just let it go” point.
Momma Rose has them insisting they’re “ten years old” for another eight to ten years, and they dress accordingly.The irony of the story is that all the high-kicking, short-skirted, pants revealing stuff with American flags everywhere (by 18 year olds pretending to be 10) is seen as wholesome by Momma Rose, when she will be appalled by adult striptease later.
In a solo spot, the male dancer Tulsa reveals his ambitions to Louise, demonstrating his solo dance ability. He needs a partner. Louise hopes it will be her. Then we discover he’s hightailed it with Baby June instead. The real Baby June left in 1928 to join the dance marathon contests (dance till you drop – last couple standing wins) portrayed in the novel and film They Shoot Horses Don’t They. Baby June reveals that she’s hated the act for years. This is where Louise has to step up as star. They play a burlesque show in Wichita with strippers. In one of the musical’s funniest sequences the three strippers explain that you have to have a gimmick in striptease. The trio are brilliant cameos. there’s the statuesque one who plays a trumpet, the extremely skinny one who does ballet moves, and the elderly one who has light up pasted bits on the appropriate places. Brilliant performances.
Louise becomes Gypsy Rose Lee (Lara Pulver)
Louise develops “artistic striptease” promising everything, while revealing nothing. We see a succession of examples of her developing stage act. Lara Pulver is totally convincing. She becomes a star. Momma is put to one side … but of course they are reunited at the end.
The production scores in every aspect. It’s hard to show just how good it looks. The online images have avoided the dance routines and the three hilarious strippers. I think they’re sensible to hold the impact for the theatre. The dressing room set above is one of many that are wheeled silently forward. It is supposedly going to the West End. Shame about losing Chichester’s semi-thrust stage, but a fake proscenium arch is used halfway back to evoke theatres anyway. It’ll work. I hope to see it again.