In case you don’t know, “Gypsy” tells the story of Rose, the original awful pushy stage mother whose name has become synonymous with awful pushy stage mothers, who will do anything to make her daughter a star. At first, she focuses her life and all of her being on June, the talented daughter, while pushing Louise, the not-so, to the side. (Or to the chorus as one of the boys in June’s act.) The family along with random boys (named after the towns they were picked up in, I love that) travel the country for years and years to perform at vaudeville halls for whatever they can get. June finally has enough when she’s at some grown-up age (they never really are sure of how old they are), and she and the boy that Louise had a crush on, Tulsa, elope. Poor Louise. Rose switches her focus to her remaining daughter, vowing to talent her up and make her a star. However, vaudeville is dying, and when their shitty act gets accidentally booked at a burlesque hall, everything changes. Louise almost accidentally finds her kind-of-creepy calling in a world where she doesn’t need or want her mother around anymore, and Rose realizes that her entire life was spent pushing her girls to stardom when obviously she just wanted fame for herself and never got it. So sad but so crazy.
Lots of important people say that “Gypsy” is the greatest American musical. I think it’s one of the most important, and definitely Rose is one of if not the most important female characters in the canon, but the show is not the best. It’s great, but there’s so much clutter - I had forgotten how much of the show is the stupid kids’ act. Oh my goodness! Baby June & Her Newsboys! Extra Extra! Look at the headline! Dainty June & Her Farmboys! Oh my god it gets ANNOYING. 70% of the first act is the kids performing. And 60% of Act II is the grow-up kids act with Louise as the star. We hear the act’s one song about 90 times, and then of course we hear “Let Me Entertain You” 99 times. I could sense my husband starting to hulk out when it literally became a stress test gone insane. Luckily, the parts that aren’t the kids performances are superb. It’s so funny, that the dramatic arc of the family dynamic is classic and brilliant, while the majority of the show, the pacing, the structure, is all these dumb kids. Once you make it through that, though, you are rewarded with some of the most compelling musical numbers ever. “Some People”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, and “Rose’s Turn” are of course the big three, the core of Rose’s performance that all need to be absolutely nailed, and Imelda nailed them. I never knew she could sing at all, and I was blown away by how it wasn’t even singing, it was just a continuation of her character.
So many of the other smaller songs are equally memorable and beautiful. We have “Small World”, “Together Wherever We Go”, “If Mama Was Married”, the latter of which gives us our one and only glimpse into the sister relationship and it always makes me want to see more of that. you wonder how much Rose created a divide between the girls and whether they could have bonded over complaining about her if given the chance to be friends. Although I suppose when June secretly marries the boy Louise had a crush on, the relationship is beyond strained.
Speaking of Tulsa, man that is such a good role for an up and coming young man. You show off your dancing and a little singing for like, 10 minutes, and then you are gone for the rest of the show. I love how subtle Louise’s falling for him is. It increases the emotional heft of her performance to feel that you’ve sensed a secret longing of someone onstage without overtly being told as such, like you form a connection with Louise and thus feel for her even more. The 2008 Broadway revival (Patti’s) spoiled me with Laura Benanti, who showed Louise’s emotional journey so subtly and exquisitely that she set the bar insanely high for future Gypsies. Also, her moos, as one of Dainty June’s farm animals, cannot be beat. (“Mu MOO mu moo.” She deserved a Tony just for that. It cracks me up.) Lara Pulver, the West End’s Gypsy, does a fine job in showing us Louise’s journey, and her voice is beautiful. My favorite moment of hers was her “Little Lamb”, a song I always forget about, but it’s really lovely and moving while being so so simple. But there’s nothing to Pulver’s performance that we aren’t explicitly shown, no deeper emotional levels or subtlety. I felt at times (as I so often do here) that her focus on keeping her American accent in check hindered her ability to fully be in character and show us more to Louise. Like, Gypsy Rose Lee isn’t some woodland sprite who lives a life of joy surrounded by singing butterflies, but that’s what she would have us believe at the end of this, that she was finally sincerely happy. There was no necessary edge to this proclamation of happiness, no bite undercutting it. And we need that.
The role of Herbie, Rose’s longtime, long-suffering partner, is equally important, and Peter Davison was very good, although he sounded eerily close to Gene Hackman’s chain-smoking tobacco magnate in “Heartbreakers”. However, he seemed almost too strong to be hurt by Rose, and when he finally finally leaves her for good, you are not upset because you are just happy for him! Yay Herbie! Run don’t walk and so on! I think that scene is supposed to be a bit more crushing though. When Herbie seems weaker, it is, because it’s easier to see that he really does love Rose for some reason. But this Herbie was a little too normal, and there’s no normal in “Gypsy”.
After such a remarkable night, the ending left me kind of confused and cold. In the 2008 revival and in the versions I’m more familiar with, the ‘reconciliation’ between Rose and Louise is tentative, to say the least. I always thought the point was that Louise despised Rose or at least blamed her for everything terrible that has befallen the family, and for her private anguish. I remember Laura Benanti’s Louise laughing at Rose’s dream and the tension between the two still being fo’ serious. Rose is left kind of pathetically dragging behind. Here, instead, they seemed to fully make up, with Pulver’s Louise being like ‘Dude I’m SO happy there is NOTHING I’m hiding in my talk about happiness, just pure joy!’ and the last shot should have been Rose tripping-running to catch up to her star of a daughter (that was such a shockingly good image, like Rose was scurrying still to chase stardom), but instead the last shot is Louise putting her arm around her mother when she does catch up! What is that! There’s no happy mother-daughter ending in “Gypsy”! I was quite taken aback by this type of forgiveness-filled ending to what should be a wretched, regret-filled end for Rose. It’s much more dramatic and moving if there’s no forgiveness (like in life!). It an unfortunate final minute or so to two hours of splendid theatre, so it’s okay. Imelda’s performance is so unbelievable, it’s a must-see. It’s kind of hilarious that the Olivier Awards occurred only a few nights before this show opened, because the fact that there is anyone else, male of female, lead or supporting, performing on the West End and supposedly giving an award-worthy performance while Imelda is living and breathing this role is kind of ridiculous.
OH. There’s a live puppy. So it’s worth seeing for that. PUPPIEEEEEE!
AUDIENCE: Oh dammit. I mean. PEOPLE. You’d think the audience at “Gypsy” would be well-behaved. For the most part, they were okay…but they talked during the overtures. And I don’t mean people behind me were whispering and I could shush them easily (I mean, they were and I did, but that’s not the point.) EVERYONE in the whole theatre was talking at regular volume during the overture. And especially when it is so rare to be treated to the full overture nowadays (or even to have one in shows at all), that is a crying shame. (And it literally almost made me cry, it’s so frustrating.) People apparently thought it was just like ‘sit-down’ music and that the show didn’t start yet. Ughhhhahhhh the overture sets the tone of the show! It has begun, you ingrates! It happened at the start of Act II as well, with the shorter interlude still being too long for our audience to stay quiet. What is wrong with people? It actually got to the point where I was thisclose to standing up and yelling “SHUT YOUR DAMN FACEHOLES!” But I haven’t quite figured out when that is the less disturbing/more helpful action to take in a crap situation like that. One day, I hope to have the courage to actually do it. Actually, if we’re hoping for stuff, I hope for people to stop acting like idiots in the theatre, how about that.