GYPSY – Chichester Festival Theatre

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Earlier this week I made the trip down to Chichester to see another of this season’s smash hits Gypsy starring the incredible Imelda Staunton.  The run has already sold out but I’d put money on it that we’ll see it in London before long.

Chichester Festival Theatre has a long running success stories of producing American musicals.  ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ from a few years ago is still touring after a long run in London, ‘Guys and Dolls’ this summer was a triumph, and ‘Barnum’ from last summer’s tent theatre creation whilst the theatre was being (stunningly it must be said) renewed, is about to tour the country.  Not forgetting Sweeney Todd (coincidentally I saw Gypsy on the third anniversary of seeing Sweeney Todd at Chichester) which brought arguably the leading man of musical theatre Micheal Ball with the pocket rocket that is Imelda Staunton.

Staunton returns as Momma Rose, the push stage mother of June and Louise.  June the blonde toothy star who can do cartwheels and splits whilst her sister mousy Louise supports usually dressed as a boy or later on a cow, is Momma Rose’s ticket out of the mundane and by heck does she want that.  Picking up a troop of boys whilst travelling across country they endlessly perform as June’s support whilst Rose forces them to act like children.  When they realise this isn’t as good as it seemed fractions appear and by the interval we see Rose facing her biggest crisis to date as the ‘children’ have realised that they can control their own lives as adults.  The second half moves quickly with Louise being forced into the limelight and teaming up with her mother to create a new act.  By chance they end up in a burlesque theatre and when they need a last minute act Louise is volunteered.  At first she’s unsure but when she gets into the swing of it she becomes the world famous burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee.

It’s a stunning production.  For those familiar with the Chichester Festival Theatre you’ll understand if I said I was sat on the side.  Sadly I did miss a couple of the later moments that were more set at the back of the stage and I had a few issues with the arch that kept moving forwards an backwards – but apart from that it amazed me with how many set pieces there were and how much was invested into such small moments.  For example the train station, Chinese restaurant and Garden of Eden are only on stage for such short amounts of time, yet the designer Anthony Ward has put so much effort into making these just as important as the other sets.  My biggest highlight in terms of the set and design was that the orchestra – so usually relegated to up and behind the stage at Chichester, have their very own orchestra pit and can be seen! It works so well with this show  as there are times when the conductor is addressed and as there are no huge dance numbers the slightly shortened stage doesn’t cause any issues.

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Staunton of course stands out.  She effortlessly belts out the huge numbers and has such a presence that you can’t help keep your eyes off her.  Lara Pulver is fantastic as Louise with the burlesque sequence towards the end seeing her go through several costume changes in such a short amount of time whilst also putting in a perfect performance.  The Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie song ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’ is a stand out performance with these three characters making such a lasting impression even if they are only on stage for a short amount of time.  Another great moment is towards the end of the first half when the ‘children’ realise they can do their own thing and the audience are treated to a beautiful dance sequence from Tulsa and Louise (Dan Burton and Pulver). The boys (the ones who support June) have another awesome moment in the show when they enter… but that’s all there is to say about that bit!

This was a musical I knew very little about. I’d heard a couple of songs at some point in my life but never listened to the soundtrack properly.  Steven Sondheim and Julie Styne’s lyrics and music are fantastic and are brought to life by Nicholas Skilbeck (musical director) and his orchestra.  Just before I saw the show I was lucky enough to catch Paul O Grady present a documentary about Gypsy Rose Lee on ITV which gave some great insight without spoiling the show for me. If repeated I’d recommend watching!

A couple of slight wobbles with this production being Kevin Whately (playing Herbie) who lacks the charisma his character needs and made me struggle to feel sympathy towards him and also the over used exit device they’ve got.  It’s not that it’s bad, it’s actually very effective and I could understand why it was being used, but it’s used too often! But those are two very very minor points to an otherwise perfect production directed superbly by Jonathan Kent. As I said at the beginning, I’m certain this will be heading to London and if not a life beyond Chichester.  If it does, get those tickets as there aren’t any left for Chichester!

5 stars

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