Although “Gypsy” has long been one of my favorite musicals, I had no desire to see it again during a recent trip to London. After all, I have seen so many versions, dating back to Ethel Merman starring as Rose, the ultimate stage mother. But the word here was that Imelda Staunton, an actress I have admired for her work on screen, was giving a sensationally good performance. So I ventured to the historic Savoy Theatre to see what the fuss was about. What a reward awaited me!
Staunton is terrific and often very original in her interpretation. Although she is relatively petite in comparison with other Roses whom I have seen, she is nonetheless a dynamo. She also has a strong voice. But it is mainly her acting prowess that makes her performance so fascinating. The overdrive as a stage mother is traditionally there. But there is a part in the play when she is quite flirtatious, which makes her attraction to Herbie (well-played in this production by Peter Davison), the beleaguered man in her life, believable despite all he has to endure.
But her big coup comes in her climactic number “Rose’s Turn.” We have already seen by this time that all of the energy she pours into wanting to make her daughters stars, with initial defeats, but culminating in Louise (here effectively played by Lara Pulver) becoming the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, was a substitute for her conviction that she, Rose, could have achieved stardom if she only had the chance. Staunton brilliantly has hit all of the emotional highlights and then some.
The norm is for Rose to sing the big number asserting that now it is her turn to live her own life front and center with an outburst of triumph. It is her great moment. Sing it to the rafters. However, what Staunton does is mix it partly with signs of a nervous breakdown. The result is especially poignant and achieves a memorable effect all its own, thus deepening the character and the situation.
As for the rest of the musical (book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the original direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins), this Chichester Festival Theatre production does the necessary job and reminds us anew of what a wonderful, enduring and entertaining work this is. In the confines of the Savoy Theatre, it is not as lavish as one that could be done on a large Broadway stage. But director Jonathan Kent and choreographer Stephen Mear take advantage of their smaller space to give this “Gypsy” an intimacy that brings fresh enjoyment and feeds the opportunity for Staunton to connect dramatically with the audience.
It would be a welcome treat if Imelda Staunton’s performance were to be brought to Broadway. I would relish seeing it again. Reviewed August 26. 2015.