Old Tunes/Best Tunes (Again)…
With too many stages awash in irrelevant updates that forgo context and intentions, it’s a pleasure to welcome back two old friends who simply refuse to go out of style. First, you must definitely see the Gypsy that recently opened at the Savoy Theatre. Jonathan Kent’s meticulous production recreates the original approach but also glosses the characters with real subtlety so that both the “play” (or book), the songs and show numbers are balanced perfectly against each other. The imaginative new orchestrations by Nicholas Skilbeck and Tom Kelly are brilliantly and brightly played by a superb pit band under Skilbeck that certainly has the right pulse and sound—they remind you what a brilliant composer Jule Styne was.
This is, I would say, is Styne’s most consistently theatrical score, and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents are as trenchant and gripping as anything they ever did.
There are many good reasons to revive this show (originally Ethel Merman’s calling card); one of the most compelling is having Imelda Staunton in Merman’s part as Mama Rose. She has most of the stentorian tones that are needed for the role as originally written and her interpretation of the brassy Madame Rose has an underpinning of pathos and pain that are superbly touching at unexpected moments.
But the entire cast is superb. Lara Pulver manages
the transition from the shy, wallflower Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee very convincingly—and also has a lovely voice; Peter Davison is charming and appealing as Herbie; and Gemma Sutton is excellent as the appalling, frustrated and hardened older Dainty June. Special mention should also be made of Dan Burton’s Tulsa and his standout dance routine. As for that evergreen icon “You Gotta Get a Gimmick:” Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand are delightful as Tessie Tura and Electra, while the uber-talented Louise Gold is a superb trumpet-blowing Miss Mazeppa. She not only bumps and grinds but has managed to inject the perfect rasp into her voice for the part. The three strippers are a highlight of a show that is inventive and generous in its stagecraft. The material never flags; it also makes one want to read Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, upon which this musical is based.
I could quibble that the production is traditional and not particularly revelatory of anything new about the show, but with such an energetic and exceptionally strong cast and such attention to detail both musically and dramatically, it would be invidious.
If you are pining for a reliable night of music theatre that also tells a terrific story via some memorable performances and with a central star turn that is as good as it gets, this is the show for you.
Of course, people who only know Staunton as Vera Drake or from the Harry Potter films will probably be surprised that she is a subtle and classy musical comedy star; but those of us who saw her as a virtually definitive Miss Adelaide in the National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls years ago will be delighted to rediscover aspects of her talent that don’t get enough attention or exercise. Another bonus is the theatre itself, the Savoy being one of the most interesting venues in the West End with its silver-coated art deco design.
This Gypsy is a fine example of the current trend in the UK for revivals of 20th century theatre pieces that evoke the original production. Now here’s an idea: if only there were talents (and funds) out there for new material for people like Staunton or Pulver and for building original, contemporary shows on them the way they used to for Mary Martin or Ethel Merman… http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/gypsy/savoy-theatre/
Willy Loman still has what it takes
Second, opt for Greg Doran’s excellent and moving production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play, Death of a Salesman, now finishing a run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and is moving to the West End in London on May 9. It’s already selling out, so get your tickets before it opens (on May 9). Like Gypsy, it’s another perfect example of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fix it.
As always, Doran reads and interprets the text without imposing any extraneous thoughts from the outside, but mines its meanings and moods with great subtlety and sensitivity. He has forged a superb ensemble of actors working seamlessly together, and produced results that I think would please Arthur Miller himself. It looks very good on the large thrust stage of Stratford’s main theatre. The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is superbly faithful to the stage directions and concept of the original text and makes full use of the facilities of the house; the lighting by Tim Mitchell helps distinguish between the action that is in the real present and that which is inside Willy Loman’s head. With a poignant jazz score by Paul Englishby to accompany and underscore the action, the characters of Miller’s modern day American tragedy are set in a suitable context.
Anthony Sher powerfully portrays the ageing salesman betrayed by his dreams of glory
and his belief in the System. Alex Hassell and Sam Marks achieve faultless transitions from being his damaged grown-up sons in the “now” to being their hopeful and energetic adolescent selves in his memories and dreams with a superb grasp of the body language and vocal nuances required to portray their different ages on the stage. And for me, Harriet Walter’s is simply the best Linda I’ve ever seen. Her dignity, her fierce loyalty to her husband, her questionable collusion in his dreams that are as much a source of the unconscious damage done to her sons as are Willy Loman’s expectations, are superbly conveyed. All the smaller parts are also well-taken and deeply understood; but above all Sher’s Loman is breathtakingly sympathetic while also being brutal, insensitive, bullying and angry, a man who cannot face or understand the sources of his personal disaster. From the moment he walks on stage we can see the weight of defeat and disappointment he bears; and the contrasts to his earlier self-belief and inability to question the received opinions of his time are all the more unsettling as his memories unfold. As in Einstein’s theory, time is folded in upon itself and the pressures of the past are very much pushing on the present.
This production does not, like the superb A View fromthe Bridge that was recently in London, try to rethink the standard approach to Arthur Miller. Instead it is a perfect embodiment of the classic approach that was first inspired by Miller and Elia Kazan and it is truly, painfully and superbly evocative of the well-made Broadway Play of its era. Minutely detailed and truly engaged with the text and its requirements, this is, indeed, a strong playing out of one of the most important American plays of the twentieth century.
Death of a Salesman finishes at Stratford on 2 May and transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre in London, currently booked to run from 9 May until 18 July. For tickets: