When you think of musical theatre you think of singing and dancing. Sequins and jazz hands. Sparkling smiles and happiness. More recent musicals have been experimenting hugely with structure and form, but written in the 1950s, Gypsy was ahead of its time. With a focus on the main characters’ journeys rather glitz and glamour, this production creates a new standard for outstanding acting in musical theatre.
Imelda Staunton is without a doubt the star of the show. Rose’s tenacity and gradual unraveling is played with nuance, conviction and unfailing energy. Peter Davison’s Herbie contrasts Rose’s brashness with a quiet devotion, creating a lovely dynamic but that painfully mirrors every failed relationship. Though Lara Pulver’s journey from the shy Louise to the cold Gypsy Rose Lee is inevitable, it taps into the vulnerability of all characters involved. Her naïve devotion completes a charming, though dysfunctional threesome that eventually crumbles. None of these three principal actors relied on hackneyed, two-dimensional characterizations that are so easy to adopt in musical theatre.
The book certainly helps, providing a vigorous, well-constructed skeleton on which the actors lovingly add meat and flesh. The only point when the book lets down the show in the final scene. In this case, the ambiguity is unsatisfying. The show could have ended earlier, when Rose finally comes to terms with her actions, or she could have been left by Louise to face the loneliness of a life alone. Otherwise, this genre-defining book musical holds up wonderfully.
The Savoy is a splendid setting for Gypsy, capturing the grand bygone days of vaudeville and the sort of houses Rose yearns to play. The Savoy juxtaposes the meta-theatrical set of the shabby world of the regional houses Rose’s kids actually play. It’s omnipresent, just out of her reach as a shadow she can’t see properly beyond the footlights, but one that adds to the audience’s visual experience immensely. The sequins and glitter Rose eventually encounters bedeck intimidating, crude burlesque performers signifying the demise of the grand old days of vaudeville and the decent into the more sexualized, desperate world of the Great Depression.
This production is one to see for those people that are not keen on musical theatre but want the experience of brilliant acting and character development. Of course there are songs and dances, but they are not the focal point of the show. This is a musical that brushes the genre, but doesn’t overwhelm with anything other than some of the best British talent gracing the West End musical stage.
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