“Ready or not, here comes Mama…”
These days, it’s more of a surprise when the big musicals from Chichester Festival Theatre don’t transfer into London (cf Barnum). And though it took them a wee while to confirm that Jule Styne’s Gypsy would be making a similar leap, after receiving the kind of extraordinary reviews (including from yours truly) that would most likely canonise Imelda Staunton right here and now, there was never really any doubt that this Rose would get her turn again, 40 years after the show was last seen in the West End.
With such a build-up and expectations sky high, Jonathan Kent’s production has a lot to live up to – and you can sense perversely-minded naysayers dying to have their turn – but dare I say it, I think the show has gotten even better. A key aspect to this is that Anthony Ward’s multi-faceted and multi-piece set design fits much better into the Savoy’s proscenium arch, its machinations felt just a little too exposed on Chichester’s thrust though the pay-off is that Nicholas Skilbeck’s supple-sounding orchestra now has to be tucked away.
But what can’t be hidden away is the fearsome quality of Staunton’s Mama Rose. Arthur Laurents’ book is based on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, recounting her formative years as an unwilling part of a touring family vaudeville act, thrust into the spotlight by her hyper-controlling mother when her younger sister makes a break for freedom. Rose is the ultimate pushy stage mom and Staunton makes sure we see her in all her complexity, leavening her callousness with charm enough to make you fall utterly into her orbit.
And there’s absolutely no escaping her, both acts end with simply extraordinary spine-tingling, soul-baring spectacles that will leave you agog. The beauty of the show is that the songs are genuine extensions of the writing, an integral part of the character progression (or should that be degeneration) so that whether witnessing the pummelling self-delusion of ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ or the scorching moment of self-realisation that is ‘Rose’s Turn’, Staunton’s enthralling work ensures we’re finding out as much, if not more, about Rose as when she simply speaks.
It’s not a one-woman show by any stretch though. Lara Pulver offers her own immense performance as the young woman who takes nearly the entire show to escape her mother’s shadow, equally compelling as an overlooked youngster as the supremely seductive ecdysiast; Peter Davison steps into Kevin Whately’s shoes well as the tolerant Herbie; and Stephen Mears’ choreography is a delight to behold, whether in solo numbers like Dan Barton’s expressive routine, or the brilliance of the flickering time-lapse sequence which is just inspired. An absolute triumph.