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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Gypsy
Savoy Theatre  2015

Gypsy is the very definition of the big brassy Broadway musical of the Golden Age of the 1950s – in-your-face, infectiously high-spirited, tuneful, and above all a real star vehicle. 

You don't attempt to play King Lear unless you've got the acting muscle for it, and you don't take on Mama Rose unless you are a Star with a capital S. 

All hail Imelda Staunton, then, as the diminutive actress takes possession of the spotlight as her inalienable right and makes the part her own. 

A couple of seasons back Staunton took on another star role, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and accomplished the seemingly impossible by being far better than the character's creator, Angela Lansbury. 

And while nobody would dare say Staunton completely eclipses Ethel Merman here, there's no question that she redefines the character by finding depths and colours Merman never explored. 

As the world and his sister knows, Gypsy – book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – is the fictionalised story of stripper-comedienne Gypsy Rose Lee, burlesque star of the 1940s, and in particular of her childhood as support to her vaudeville child performer sister, under the direction of the mutha of all stage mothers.

As a babe in arms I saw Ethel Merman march through this musical like Sherman through Georgia, an irresistible force who bounced her voice off the back wall of the theatre without amplification and turned songs like 'You'll Never Get Away From Me' and 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' into warnings to the world to get out of her way and challenges to the audience to resist her star power. 

Imelda Staunton has the same star power, but she's much more of an actress, and her Mama Rose is a much more complex character. 

When Rose seduces Herbie with 'Small World' and keeps him from wavering with 'You'll Never Get Away From Me' Merman overpowered helpless Jack Klugman with the sheer force of her will. 

But Staunton is softer and sexier in a self-mockingly Mae West fashion, and you can watch Peter Davison's warm and attractive Herbie falling under her spell. 

Nowhere is Imelda Staunton's new ownership of the role more definitive then in the first act finale as, down on her luck, Rose insists that 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'. 

This time around that anthem isn't just the irresistible force ploughing her way through just one more irrelevant obstacle. Staunton lets the mask crack and shows us the desperation and even madness in Rose's compulsive need to keep going. 

The act ends not on a simple upbeat, but with dark forebodings of just how far this woman's obsession is going to take her. And the whole musical becomes a darker and richer drama than it ever was before. 

(Incidentally, since I have noplace else to put this note, the role of Louise/Gypsy herself is a somewhat thankless supporting one, and Lara Pulver has little opportunity to make much impression until the late scenes when the grown-up woman gets to move out of her mother's control and enjoy herself.) 

And then, at the end, comes 'Rose's Turn', the number that defines the term Dramatic Climax, and here is the only point at which one could question Staunton's interpretation. 

As Mama reaches in fantasy toward the glory she had tried to achieve through her daughters, Staunton finds all the drama. But with the softer, rounder reading of the character comes a loss of the sheer animal energy a Merman or Patti LuPone would give her, and we're never quite convinced that, given the chance, Rose could have been a star. 

There's no question whatever about Imelda Staunton. If I've been banging on a little too much about a star I saw more than fifty years ago, I promise you'll be boring your grandchildren with tales of the time you saw Imelda Staunton in Gypsy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Gypsy - Savoy Theatre 2015    

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