Gypsy: a star is reborn

Christian Butler

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Britain certainly doesn’t share America’s love affair with Gypsy. Since London last staged the musical, with Angela Lansbury back in 1973, there have been four separate revivals on Broadway. Thankfully, a new revival of the show has finally arrived in the West End.

It was written in 1959 as a star vehicle for Ethel Merman. The music was written by old pro Jule Styne and the lyrics were penned by a young Stephen Sondheim. Inspired by the memoirs of burlesque-entertainer-turned-actress Gypsy Rose Lee, the story follows her demented mother, Mama Rose, as she drags her children across the vaudeville circuit of 1920s America, trying to turn them into stars at any cost.

This new production at the Savoy Theatre is directed by Jonathan Kent and stars Imelda Staunton as Mama Rose. The two have previously worked together on the 2012 West End revival of Sweeney Todd.

Staunton’s casting has rightfully made this new production a major event. Although lacking the big-belting singing voice usually associated with the role, Staunton brings such an intensity and a reality to the 60-year-old dialogue that you feel physically exhausted by the end of the show. She masterfully brings out the layers of one of Broadway’s most complex characters. Hilarious one moment, tear-jerking the next, this is truly a tour de force performance.

Sondheim’s lyrics lack the sophistication of his later work, but his trademark irony is very much present in each of Gypsy’s memorable songs. These old-fashioned numbers from the golden age of Broadway make the dark and disturbing turns of the plot all the more surprising.

While it might have taken over 40 years for Gypsy to return to the West End, this supreme revival has made it well worth the wait.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician living in London.

Gypsy is at the Savoy Theatre, London, until 28 November 2015.

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