Book: Arthur Laurents
Lyrics: Jule Styne
Music: Stephen Sondheim
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Soundtracks of musical revivals have their work cut out for them to justify their existence. Why, when there is already one out there (or in the case of this musical, at least seven) would you need to produce another? The new major London revival of Gypsy – staggeringly, its first appearance in the West End in over forty years – comes with the obligatory cast recording, but does it offer enough differences to separate it from the pack?
Over the years, the towering talents on record as Mama Rose include Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters. And now it’s the turn of one of England’s national treasures, Imelda Staunton to belt out how ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’. And belt it she does. Small of stature and better known for more subdued rôles like Vera Drake, Staunton here delivers a grand-standing performance as the monstrous stage mother to beat them all. Although an actress first, Staunton’s voice carries the songs well and particularly in the monumental “Rose’s Turn” her abilities as an actress help sell the lyric in a much more dramatic way than one is used to hearing. Suddenly a show-stopping number becomes a heart-tugging monologue set to music. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who saw Staunton as Miss Adalaide in Guys &Dolls at the National Theatre nearly twenty years ago, but to the generation who think of her as Delores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies, her performance here will open more than a few eyes as to what an all-round talent she really is.
Although Gypsy verges on being a one-woman show at times, the rest of the casting manages to match Staunton’s performance. Particular mention must go to Ilsa Huggins-Barr as Baby June along with the rest of the child cast – even if the young Newsboys bizarrely forgo American accents to sound more like the chorus of Oliver! Peter Davison is a sincere Herbie, and the threes strippers (Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie LaGrand) are an absolute hoot.
The ‘on stage’ songs in the score are perfectly performed in deliberate amateurish style with this recording, unlike most others, going for realism over superficial gloss with humorous results. Gemma Sutton as June brilliantly strains in her ‘Farmboys’ number but then proves her real talents in ‘If Mama Were Married’. The same can be said for Lara Pulver as Louise, beginning as she does as shy and introvert before slowly transforming throughout the show into the confidently vampish stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. These differences and changes in Rose’s girls have not always been made clear on previous recordings but are perfectly defined here.
Instead of messing with the score, Nicolas Skilbeck’s orchestrations and musical direction stay very close to the source – a wise move considering that the original is near perfect. Sondheim’s lyrics contain both wit and heart, and Styne’s music remains fresh fifty six years after it was written – including one of musical theatre’s best ever overtures.
And this brings us back to the original question – does this CD bring enough new to the table to justify itself? The answer is – just about. Staunton is one of the better Roses and the vocal and instrumental performances are all enthusiastic and melodious. The recording is hardly ground-breaking but it serves up the score with flair and character. In the words of Louise’s stripper mentors “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” and in this case, Staunton’s name above the title is more than enough.