Monday, November 03, 2014

Imelda's Turn: GYPSY at Chichester

This year Chichester Festival Theatre has given us very fine revivals of AMADEUS and GUYS AND DOLLS but they have topped even these with Jonathan Kent's production of the Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim classic GYPSY, in no small part due to Imelda Staunton's stunning performance as Mama Rose.

Soon after their previous Chichester collaboration SWEENEY TODD, rumours started that Kent and Staunton would take on GYPSY which sent me into an utter to-do... could it really happen?  There has been the occasional regional production or tour but no London production for 40 years.

Yes Constant Reader, you read that correctly, 40 years.  Any number of possible Mama Roses have come and gone - whither Julia McKenzie?  There was talk that Sam Mendes' production starring Bernadette Peters would come in marking her London acting debut but it never materialised probably due to the fact that it had a troubled run on Broadway although Peters scored a personal triumph as Rose.

Up until now I had seen 5 Mama Roses: Tyne Daly on Broadway, Lynda Baron in Cheltenham, Bette Midler in the tv movie, Rosalind Russell in the disappointing film version and Patti LuPone again on Broadway.  I had thought I would never see another to match the latter's intensity.  Boy, was I was wrong.

Despite being one of the greatest musicals ever written, there is an imbalance in it as the title character is not the lead.  Arthur Laurents based his script on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee who was still alive at the time which might explain why the character of Louise feels slightly under-written compared to the more dominant role of Mama Rose, the eternal stage mother.  However Louise comes into her own midway through the second act and become a match for her mother towards the end.  This is a difficult ask as Rose is always cast with powerhouse performers in a role that is proven to be one of the biggest in musical theatre.

Of the five actresses who have played Rose on Broadway, all have been Tony Award-nominated with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone winning.  In a battle of career-defining roles, Ethel Merman lost to Mary Martin in THE SOUND OF MUSIC while Bernadette Peters lost to HAIRSPRAY's Marissa Jaret Winokur.  Lansbury also won the London Critic's Circle Award for Best Actress, the first time it had been given to a musical actress.

All of which means that any actress that takes on Rose knows she is taking on a huge challenge.  Re-reading my blog after seeing the LuPone production I did say that although powerful, I also was not surprised by anything she did, she gave exactly the performance I was expecting.  Imelda Staunton also gave the performance I expected from her - but she then kept going!

It's a role she inhabits superbly: Rose's tenacious, terrier-like, attack on the world to make one of her daughters a star, the tough-as-nails exterior covering up a child-like vulnerability, it's all there in Imelda's performance.  But there are lovely touches too - her flirtatiousness attack on Herbie when they meet; her dejected capitulation when she realises the act is truly over when it's booked into a burlesque house, her crumbling into broken sobs when hugged by Gypsy at the end.

But truly hair-raising was how Staunton took on the two act-closing solos where any actress playing Rose has to go from 0-to-100 in as many minutes.  When Rose discovers her beloved daughter June has rejected both her and the act by eloping it leads to her switching her ambition to her unprepared daughter Louise by declaring EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES.  Staunton launched into it with a thrilling attack, her Rose so caught up in her vision that at one point after hugging Louise, she then pushes her out of her way.  Her scorching final note was button-holed with her twirling her coat around, on her way to start her burning mission.

Laurents' book moves seamlessly along punctuated by Styne and Sondheim's glorious songs until the final, angry confrontation when Gypsy orders her mother out of her dressing-room and her life.

Alone on an empty stage, Rose finally gives vent to her long-bottled-up rage at all those who have walked out on her with the scorching ROSE'S TURN.  This legendary number - a mental breakdown performed to a bump-and-grind beat - is what the whole show has been building to and any actress playing the role has to be up to it's tricky challenges.  Staunton totally nailed it: the sarcasm, the anger, the despair and the mania that she had hinted at earlier all came together in an all-too-human performance.  Resisting the temptation to chew the scenery, Staunton kept it in check which made it all the more thrilling.

Lara Pulver was a delight as the less-talented, emotionally-neglected Louise who morphs into the self-assured, brittle glamour of Gypsy Rose Lee.  She captured Louise's sadness sweetly and her unrequited longing for the dancer Tulsa was also well-played, making it all the more touching when she is the one who is left alone when her sister and Tulsa elope.  All of this made her list of accusations against her mother during their face-off all the more biting.

I was surprised when Kevin Whateley was cast as Herbie but, apart from a dodgy American/Geordie accent, he was quite charming and played his character's permanent exhaustion well, especially in the scene when he is finally broken by Rose's intransigence.  Gemma Sutton also scored too as June, itching to be free of Rose's tyrannical ambition and her little-girl outfits.

One of GYPSY's great set-pieces is YOU GOTTA GET A GIMMICK, performed by the tough-as-nails strippers to an enthralled Louise in a tatty burlesque dressing room, and it was punched over by a great trio of broads: Anita Louise Combe as Tessie Tura, Julie Legrand as Electra and the wonderful Louise Gold as Mazeppa. 

Jonathan Kent's direction was seamless and strong with the main characters all feeling thought-through and 'real' while Anthony Ward's set and costume designs were a constant delight from the gaudy and glamorous vaudeville designs to the low-rent theatrical digs.  The eye-popping and colourful designs for Gypsy's LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU medley were a nice surprise.  Also adding immeasurably to the production's success was Mark Henderson's lighting design.

Stephen Mear's choreography was excitingly energetic and the show also included Jerome Robbins' original and inventive staging of both the 'transition' scene when June and Louise grow up in seconds and the YOU GOTTA GET A GIMMICK number - those moves might be 55 years old but are still great.

The Chichester run finishes this week and it will be the crime of the century if this does not transfer to London - we NEED this show in the West End.

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