Savoy Theatre (Thursday 2 & Thursday 30th April 2015)
review by Emma Shane
© May 2015
I suppose I should start this review by saying that in general while I think some great musicals were written for Ethel Merman, which on the one hand I would love to see. On the other hand I am very weary of seeing any of them performed on the stage simply because I am prejudiced in feeling that many singer-actresses don’t have the vocal abilities actually sing them well enough in the way in which I really want to hear them sung. Having got that proviso out of the way, lets get on with the review.
The show is basically last autumns Chichester production transferred to London’s West End, with just a very few changes.
Obviously being on a different stage, and one that is more proscenium Arch than Chichester’s funny shaped thrust stage makes the staging very very slightly different. This is noticeable in the first scene, where the action of the auditions for Uncle Jacko’s Kiddle Show, see a long way away and less intimate then previously, but that could also be due to the scale of The Savoy Theatre (and that I was sitting near the back of the stalls instead on down towards the front of the stalls. Billy Hartman has replaced Jimmy Chisholm and seems a little less charismatic, and less creepy, but a perfectly satisfactory performance., just different.
As is traditional with Gypsy, Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose makes her first entrance through the auditorium, calling out to the kids “Sing Out Louise” Given how muddled everything had been that day (with not knowing whether the show would actually be on) I never quite managed to assertain on the 2nd April whether it was Isla Huggins-Barr or Scarlet Roche as Baby June, and Holly Hazelton or Lara Wollington as Baby Louise. But when I saw it on the 30th it was definitely Scarlet Roche and Lara Wollington and I’m pretty sure the ones on the 2nd were not those two. Whoever was playing June on the second, I noticed that unlike Georgia Pemberton’s performance as Chichester last autumn she made her accent less squeaky (and not so similar to the legendary child-actress who had played the part in the 1973 London production. Whereas when Scarlet Roche played her on the 30th her voice was very much in the squeaky style, fortunately she is an impressive young actress well able to make that work. I also noticed on the 2nd that whoever was playing Baby Louise was really good, just like in Chichester, so it might well have been Holly Hazelton (whom I had previously seen at Chichester). On the 30th Lara Wollington was also good, but not quite the same finesse as Holly Hazelton.
The next scene, set At Home also feels less intimate. Staunton sings the classic I Had A Dream well, as before she sings it in the way that is right for her voice, which isn’t the way the song was originally written to be sung, but better that she does it good in the way that’s right for her, than badly in its original style. The acting between Staunton and Harry Dickman is just as good as it was in Chichester, as one would expect.
The scene where Rose is in some producer’s office, while the kids are playing in the alley and then Herbie the candy salesmen enters is terrific. Peter Davison proves to be just as good a fit for the part as Kevin Whately; In a way even better. It’s really interesting to see him play a more mature role, particularly given that his two best known TV roles occurred when he was much younger, so naturally being that much older he is playing a completely different sort of character to those he did back then.
The interlude scene in the car is much the same as at Chichester, but here the proscenium arch works in its favour giving it a more rather than less immediacy.
On to one of the most cleverly staged numbers Baby June And Her Newsboys. This works just as well as it did in Chichester. We notice very clearly that the actress playing Baby June on the 2nd has a clearer voice than Georgia Pemberton did in Chichester. Whereas Scarlet Roche on the 30th was in a squeaky accent but somehow she made it work. The strobe effects at the end of the number as the children and grown ups change places works just as well as before. Once again with Lara Pulver making a very subtle entrance.
The Hotel room scene brings Lara Pulver to the fore. Of course it is different seeing a show second time round, especially when it is basically the same production, because one more or less knows what will happen next, and as a result scenes either appear to move a little faster, or appear to drag on more. Have An Egg Roll Mr Goldstone was one of the bits which I felt dragged, mainly because I really found myself noticing that vocally Staunton sings it in a way that is most definitely not like the original cast album, and well the song was written specifically for the singer who sang it there. Staunton does it totally in the way that is right for her, and I am glad she does, because a poor imitation of the almost inimitable singer who originally sang it would not be a good idea at all. But of course Staunton’s great strength is her acting ability. and she does act it very well. However, I felt the highlight of the scene was the ending with Lara Pulver’s beautiful touching Little Lamb, one line in particular which really brings out and brings home one of the key features of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc’s trouping childhood, they themselves had to spend so much time keeping track of how old they were supposed to be for their act and travelling, that they weren’t always too sure themselves how old they actually were.
Now the first act seems to step up a pace. The restaurant scene and Staunton’s singing of You’ll Never Get Away From Me, brings out both Staunton and Peter Davison’s acting skills, with great interplay. Just as well as when Staunton acted the same scene with Kevin Whately. It really is interesting to see Peter Davison acting this part. I found myself remembering that I first saw Staunton on stage when she played Adelaide in the National’s second production of Guys And Dolls.
We come to the funny, and actually rather ironic scene where the kids audition their farm act for an important producer. Some of the lines like Julie Legrand (as a secretary)’s one “They are having trouble with their scenery” seemed ironic (particularly on the 2nd). One almost wanted to laugh at the line, but one felt it would be unkind to The Savoy Theatre’s amazingly excellent stage crew to laugh here. We could however, laugh at Staunton’s performance, as Mama Rose assisting the kids with the act, moving props etc.
The scene outside the production office is a delight, mainly because this time Lara Pulver and Gemma Sutton make If Momma Were Married so much their own, irrespective or any previous singer actresses renditions of that number. And given how often that number has featured in revues and galas, particularly of course Side By Side By Sondheim that is no mean feat. It was actually an improvement on their Chichester performance of the same number. Lara Pulver is particularly brilliant, not least because she has the very difficult task of following in the footsteps of some particularly unique and memorably brilliant gala performances (such as: Louise Gold in the SBSBS 25th Anniversary and Millicent Martin in the SBSBS 30th Anniversary)
Dan Burton sings and dances All I Need Is The Girl just as well as he did at Chichester. He proves to be a splendid song and dance man. Just exactly the sort of performer musical theatre always needs. I do hope he goes on to get bigger parts.
In the early part of the act things had dragged, they stepped up a bit during the later scenes, but at long last we come to the final scene of the act, which is exactly the right point in the plot for the interval. The point where Momma Rose hones in on Rose Louise and promises to make her a star with Everything’s Coming Up Roses. This song, possibly the biggest hit number from the entire show, highlights this production’s only real weakness, and the main reason why I’ve always felt I wouldn’t want to see Gypsy live on stage. Staunton acts well. And sings it sensibly in the way that is right for her voice. even pulling off a good number of Julia Mckenzie type tricks with this number , but somehow, to my ears it ultimately fails to make a big impact. It should be the most memorable number in the entire show, and yet somehow it just isn’t. Absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of the song other than not quite managing to actually sell it. This is not Staunton’s fault at all. It isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just that the role in general and this number in particular are written for a certain kind of singer and there are very very few singer-actresses who have anything like the kind of voice it was written for. It is a similar problem that has beset many a production of Anything Goes (the final month of the 1989 London production, the Grange Park Opera production, the EMI Classics studio cast album and the JAY/TER studio cast album being notable exceptions), it is a problem that occurs even more noticeably (thanks to the film being perfect) in Call Me Madam (a radio production starring Kim Criswell being a notable exception). And it’s a problem which the Lost Musicals productions of Red Hot & Blue, Dubarry Was A Lady, Panama Hattie, and, Something For The Boys were amazingly lucky to avoid (and only because they managed to cast one of the very few singers with the vocal abilities to sing certain songs “as it was intended”, to borrow a line from DuBarry). But I knew when I first saw Gypsy in Chichester that this production would have that problem, and well Imelda Staunton does sing the songs sensibly (in a way that someone like, for example Jessica Martin, probably would not). And like when I saw Beverley Klein in Call Me Madam, we knew what we would be getting. Fortunately for Staunton, unlike many of the musicals written for Ethel Merman this one was written to depend more on her acting ability rather than her amazing singing. So the biggest hit song failing to sell and just being “a song” doesn’t actually detract from the show (in the way it might in some of the other musicals written for Merman).
The second act, opening in a middle of nowhere kind of setting is much like I remember it at Chichester. Lara Pulver acts well, as do Staunton and Davison. The most interesting thing about the scene is the number Together Whereever We Go. For a number that was clearly originally intended to have Momma Rose dominating it (if the original Broadway cast album is anything to go by), in this production it becomes very much a trio, and works very well as a team effort from the trio. It is one of the few numbers of Momma Rose’s that does not suffer in the least from being done differently to the way it was originally written to be done, in fact in a way it might even improve the number.
Now we come to my favourite scene in this entire production, the reason I actually wanted to see this production now it is in London. The scene opens backstage in a burlesque theatre, a random stripper/showgirl, presumably Lucinda Shaw is on the “stage” at the back of the actual stage. The front of which is largely taken up with a set for Tessie Tura’s dressing room. During the hustle and bustle of the girls coming in and being sent to another dressing room, and Mama Rose being horrified to discover what sort of theatre they are in, somewhere in the general muddle two of the three aging strippers enter. Anita Louise Combe as Tessia Tura rushes on complaining there is something wrong with her costume that is making it difficult to “bump” in. At which tall impressive Mazeppa in her Roman garb, stomping off stage, passing Tessie growls cuttingly and memorably “Maybe there’s something wrong with your bumper”. We come to the main part of the scene between Rose Louise and Tessie Tura, when Rose Louise with some persuasion from Momma Rose offers to sew Tessie a new costume. Then there is the fuss over someone, possibly Billy Hartman as Cigar, needing someone to say lines, and Tessie saying its not her thing and suggesting with a giggle “Use Mazeppa , everyone else does”. But one of the most amazing moments finds Tessie Tura and Rose Louise deep in conversation, and between them Lara Pulver and Anita Louise Coombe had generated so much presence that the held the audiences attention so totally we almost didn’t notice someone else coming on stage, (in fact on the 2nd I didn’t notice, but on the 30th I did just see Louise Gold stomp on in a fury. But suddenly, (and if you had been paying too much attention to Pulver and Combe seemingly without warning), while Rose Louise and Tessie Tura are in the middle of a conversation, the doorhandle turns, and then the door is flung open with a whirlwind force as a furious Mazeppa sweeps in with all the power we can expect when Louise Gold has her stage presence turned on full, dominating the action declaring “I don’t do lines”, somehow the way she dominated the scene from that moment on, meant we practically didn’t notice when Julie LeGrand enters as Electra. Then of course it is time for the three of them to launch into their amazing number You Gotta Get A Gimmick. This truly is amazing, and included a wonderful surprise in the form of Louise Gold’s singing. When I saw the show in Chichester last autumn she sang her part of it in a Monster growl sort of voice (a voice like The Muppet Show monster Big Mamma), now while this was perfectly satisfactory and in keeping with the character, tonight (both 2nd and 30th) I was truly delighted that she sang it in a very slightly toned down version or her sock it to ‘em brassy belt voice. Which out of all the many wonderful vocal styles she can sing in it’s the one I like best of all. It’s the splendid vocal style she used to the full when she sang the song some sixteen years ago in Side By Side By Sondheim in Chelmsford. When I saw the show in Chichester, I thought perhaps it might have detracted from Staunton’s performance if Gold were to use her belt voice. But interestingly tonight I felt it did not do that in the slightest. It was actually just a thrilling pleasure to have one of those gorgeous Styne & Sondheim numbers belted even a bit by an A Number One Belter, no matter that it was the Strippers Anthem (rather than Rose’s songs). To my mind it gave the show a little extra lift, and also made very good use of Louise Gold’s talents. Some twenty years ago, when I first saw Gold on stage, it was her belt voice that first got my attention, only later did I become aware of her other varied talents. Tonight she is on good form. Maybe not belting quite as full out as she did with that number in Chelmsford, but nevertheless giving it a bit of her big brassy voice. But her performance her is overall superior to Chelmsford, partly because it is in it’s original setting in Gypsy in full costume, with a recreation of the original Jerome Robbins Choreography (so making good use of Gold’s Art’s Ed training), and then the crowning glory is her trumpet playing, like in Chichester for real (rather than just messing around in Chelmsford). Louise Gold proves that she is (as she has always been) a game performer, willing to learn new skills and get on with it. Her long slender sensitive fingers seem assured around her trumpet, with the little tune she’s learned enough to play for her part in this show. And when she raises her trumpet high above her head as usual her arms are up firm and straight and strong (as befits a performer who has spent a great deal of her television career working with her arms above her head). The others have their arms up high too though not for as long as she does and certainly nothing like as straight and strong up there. On the 2nd the number seemed to go without a hitch. But on the 30th I think something went very very slightly wrong. In the middle of her solo part of the number, whether it was the laughter from the audience that started it I am not quite sure, but Gold, standing in profile just about to blow some more notes on her trumpet seemed to be laughing, we could see her broad shoulders shaking. Which only made the audience laugh even more, I think some of them wondered if it was meant to be like that or not. I found myself briefly reminded of the “Uh Oh she’s drowning moment” in the documentary Of Muppets And Men, though this particular corpsing incident was nothing like as bad as that. Fortunately too there seemed to be good communication between Gold and the conductor Nicholas Skilbeck, who paused the orchestra for a few moments until Gold regained her composure, which she did very quickly, and sang the first couple of notes of the next verse with a huge big roar of her wonderful belt voice, as though to let the audience know she was back in business (consummate professional that she is) and pay attention to her actual performance. Gold’s “Roman” costume seems to suit the Amazonian actress too, and that headdress looks particularly good. Of course the trio get good applause for their number. They all do well with it, But it is such a treat to hear Louise Gold sing with the vocal style of her glorious belt voice, even as a rather minor principal, she reminds us that she’s still here singing out on the West End stage.
Moving on with the plot, we have Tessie’s arrest and Rose Louise going on. Lara Pulver turns out a diverse performance, portraying a girl starting out as gawky and awkward finally finding her confidence and beauty. Staging wise things are a little different to Chichester here, because of being a proscenium arch rather than the thrust stage, but it all works just as well.
Finally we come to Rose’s Turn. Staunton acts the number well. as usual she sings the song the way that is right for her voice, and some verses were a bit unmemorable. I did find myself thinking afterwards “Did we actually get all the lyrics?” But it was generally satisfactory, she’s a good actress, and lets not forget this is meant to be more of an acting role (albeit one originally written for a legendary singer).
At the show’s conclusion all the grown up members of the cast come on to take their bows. The child performers seem to have gone home after the first act. Many of the principals get good applause, including the trio of aging strippers. But I felt that during the curtain calls there was one thing missing. All show rely on their and their theatre’s technical crew. In my humble opinion the real stars of this performance (particularly on the 2nd April) were people like: Chris Keniger, Oli Matthews, and, Tamsyn Ross, for pulling all the stops out to get the curtain up and light the lights, plus of course people like: Mary Stone, Becky Stockting and Katie Weatherley checking and operating the microphones, and all the rest of the backstage crew. I felt they were all the real stars of the show and deserved a round of applause too, just as much as the performers on the stage did.
I am thrilled that this production of Gypsy transferred from Chichester to London, and I am delighted to have been able to see it again, now it is in London. Of course I am still biased about people doing stuff written for the mighty Merman. But Imelda Staunton does act so well, and sings sensibly in the way that best suits her voice, and is careful not to murder any songs. It’s lovely to see Lara Pulver making the title role very much her own. And I’ve very much enjoyed seeing Imelda Staunton, Peter Davison and Lara Pulver’s performance of Together Wherever We Go. But there is just one number which for me is the true highlight of the show, I am truly delighted to have seen that amazing performance of You Gotta Get A Gimmick. It was excellent in Chichester but it’s even better in London. Somehow while there is nothing wrong with Louise Gold singing Mazeppa in Monster Growl, I much prefer her making use of her magnificent Mermanesque belt voice in this number and well in my humble opinion that is a bit of a star turn, or at least she makes it into one. Well she certainly makes the most of her moment in the spotlight, and it’s just a joy to hear her sing like that. Her performance brings some back happy memories of her Lost Musicals star turns, as well as just being a thoroughly enjoyable contribution to a classic musical.