After three plays over two nights, day three in London was going to be the London staging of the musical based on Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown starring the Olivier Award-winning actress, Tamsin Greig (Episodes, Green Wing, Jumpy, God of Carnage). But the theatre gods had another idea for us. Tickets were bought, but then refunded when the show closed early.
So what’s a theatre junkie to do?
How about the musical that theatre historians refer to as the best American musical of all times? Gypsy starring the spectacular Imelda Staunton seemed like a great alternative. I have always loved that show, every song is catchy and smart and thoroughly memorable. Based on the memoirs of the vaudeville star, Gypsy Rose Lee, the book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by my favorite, Stephen Sondheim, I never seem to get tired of seeing this show. I’ve seen numerous incarnations here on Broadway, and it was going to hard to beat the incomparable Tony winning 2008 production that starring Patti LuPone as Rose, Boyd Gaines as Herbie and Laura Benanti as Louise. Those three were the power trio of all power trios. And what about the iconic 1962 film starring another perfect trio of Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden. So what would I think of this Savoy Theatre production?
I was very excited to see Imelda Staunton take on the iconic role, Momma Rose. I saw her a few years back in the West End production of Sweeney Todd for which she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. And she was marvelous and intense; just how I thought she would be in this show, and I wanted to see her roar. She didn’t disappoint. She brought that same intensity and power to the mother of all stage mothers. She ripped into every number and didn’t let you go. One of those performances that grabs you hard by the throat.
The complaint I have with the show is two fold. The supporting players, Louise and Herbie (Lara Pulver and Peter Davison), paled in comparison to Momma Rose. I hate to compare productions, but Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines were so strong in their roles, and also showed a wonderful father/daughter scared co-defenders against Momma Rose that worked so well. Their team act brought us to their side and to their defense. We were scared for them at moments against this force of theatrical stage motherdom. But in the London production, neither were strong enough to make us pay them much attention. This production was all about Imelda Staunton, and yes, we couldn’t take our eyes off her.
And sadly, Lara Pulver just didn’t excite during her transformation from shy Louise to the star Gypsy Rose Louise. They tried for too much costume wise and what we got was so much less. This is what I remember, Natalie Wood in that magnificent 1962 movie, and I guess this is what I wanted!
I also didn’t like the set design. Sounds like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but at so many moments, a platform room would roll out onto this large stage, and the director kept these actors confined to the platform. Only once did he let them break that imaginary wall, and I felt such a relief when that happened during that magnificent “Gotta Have a Gimmick” number. It felt so claustrophobic up until that moment, and at that point, I thought, ‘well, if you can break that invisible imaginary wall once, why not all those other times when it felt so constricted before?’
Watching this with my good friends, a few of them not as excited as I was about seeing this musical, or any musical for that matter, I realized how dark the show truly is. How desperate and fierce a story this musical is, which sort of took me by surprise. And Imelda digs into the darkness and we see the feeling of betrayal and anger at the world that she was not able to have for herself. “I thought you did it for me, momma?” stung us as hard at it stung her Momma Rose.
And that ain’t no gimmick.