Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Hovick

Gypsy (dir. Jonathan Kent, Savoy Theatre, April 2015, transfer from Chichester)

There was a moment toward the end of Gypsy (1959) when I got a flash of Death of a Salesman. It’s a very different piece, of course, what with being a musical and all, but both are about the delusional side of the American Dream.

Anyone can make it.

Most don’t, of course.

I didn’t know anything about Gypsy Rose Lee, beyond some kind of rhyming slang, so I wasn’t aware that she was a leading stripper with a style that berated the audience. I thus didn’t know about her politics, her support for Spanish loyalists, attendance at communist meetings or investigation by HUAC, or her novels and movies. I don’t recall knowing about June Havoc , her sister, who made it in Hollywood, just about.

The Willy Loman here is Rose, abandoned by her own mother, now wanting to get her daughter Baby June on the stage, with her plain and disregarded daughter Louise along for the ride and her sewing skills. Rose leaves Seattle to make their way in vaudeville, with the dream being bookings on the Orpheum circuit. Vaudeville is dying, of course — movies are the mass entertainments along with radio and there’s a depression (and eventually a war) to negotiate. The act, of course, isn’t very good, but through pure force of will Rose gets on, just about, and picks up Herbie as agent and potential, strung along, fourth husband. When June jumps ship, Rose promotes her older daughter. Sooner or later they end up in burlesque.

I’m not actually a fan of musicals — although this is the second I’ve seen in a year after Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and I don’t think I recognised more than one or two of the songs. The lyrics are Stephen Sondheim’s, post West Side Story, and before he got to write the music too. Arthur Laurents wrote the book and Jule Styne the music; I know the first name but not the second (I haven’t seen Funny Girl). There was a huge amount of energy from the cast, with an odd mix of good materials which are diegetic and bad which are songs within the diegesis. From the first, however, Imelda Staunton grabs the production by the scruff of the neck, although it’s able to survive the sequences where she is given a chance to catch her breath. She’s never exactly likeable — you root for her only because you want her daughters to succeed. And as the musical progresses you get the sense of what a monster she is — like Willy Loman she believes her stories. One more gig will make it alright; one more success and she will marry.

She’s living vicariously, of course, and you get the sense that Lee’s success almost comes as a punishment of and rebuke to her mother. The earlier songs were full of spectacle — flags, a pantomime cow, canes to throw  and twirl — but this builds further when the dream is revealed. Lara Pulver as Louise has a tricky transition from ugly duckling to swan and I think she succeeds.

Peter Davidson, meanwhile, has rather less to do as Herbie — a few musical numbers, but we know he can sing because we’ve seen Button Moon. Rather than hard-bitten agent he has to be mooncalf and mouse and slides off stage. This is a bit of an issue, of course, as so many characters are left behind by the performers’ travel. There’s grandfather — there’s that stage manager — and farewell. Where are they now?

But we’re carried away by the tremendous energy of Staunton – so different from her role in Pride (2014) and surprising me when we get to the point when we realise she isn’t the gypsy of the title.

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