Imelda Staunton has become the “go to” person to tackle larger-than-life characters on stage.
If you thought her award-winning turn as Sweeney Todd’s Mrs Lovett was a knock-out then wait until you see her in her Stephen Sondheim follow-up, Gypsy.
The audience at Chichester Festival Theatre rose as one last night to celebrate Staunton’s electrifying performance as the mother of all stage mothers, Momma Rose.
Jonathan Kent, who directed Staunton in Sweeney, has returned to the big, noisy, all-guns blazing style of classic musical that starts with a gutsy overture and features knock-’em-dead show-stoppers like Let Me Entertain You and Everything’s Coming Up Roses.
Gypsy has an impeccable pedigree. Book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Sondheim and music by Julie Styne, it first played Broadway in 1959 with the indomitable Ethal Merman as Momma Rose.
The tiny Staunton more than fills Merman’s shoes with a storming performance that had fans almost leaping from their seats in mid-show.
At one point we were threatened with a striptease but the star knew when to leave an audience wanting more.
Gypsy is loosely based on the true story of Gypsy Rose Lee, a shy Seattle girl with not much talent, who was pimped by her mother to become American burlesque’s biggest star.
The chow mein-loving, kleptomaniac Momma lives vicariously through her two daughters, Baby June and Louise, dragging them around the country during the dying days of vaudeville to perform awful revues in front of diminishing audiences.
And Imelda Staunton holds nothing back, giving us a grandstand performance of woman who is, at times, monstrous, ambitious, driven, insensitive, and, seemingly, incapable of giving a mother’s love.
Along the way she hooks up with failed agent, turned candy salesman, Herbie, persuading him to return to the business and secure them bookings.
Eventually June, groomed to be the star turn, has enough of performing cutsie routines in Shirley Temple dresses, and elopes with one of the act’s dancers.
Unable to contemplate settling down Rose turns her attentions to her remaining and very reluctant daughter.
During a gig in a burlesque the cash-strapped Louise offers to stand in for an “indisposed” stripper..and the rest, as they say, is history – or, at the very least, a musical fable.
Lara Pulver, who memorably, showed her credentials to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, is tremendous as Louise.
She first appears as a very convincing fresh faced and innocent-looking young teen.
But, actually, no-one, not even June or Louise, know how old they are as Momma is determined to keep them as babies. Audiences like them young.
Later, during her performance as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, we see a series of quick changes into sexy cabaret gowns (which almost went awry when the train of one caught on the staging) and a remarkable transformation into an assured and confident burlesque star.
Pulver has a clear, strong, singing voice that is a delight to listen to.
There’s a cheeky cameo from strippers Tessie, Mazeppa and Electra (Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand) who perform for Louise – and it’s all in the best of bad taste.
Lewis star Kevin Whately plays Herbie. You can take the man out of the Tyne but not the Tyne out of the man. At times his strange gruff Pan-American accent sounded like a Jimmy Durante impersonation.
He may be great at solving murders but he seems out of his depth in a song-and-dance musical.
Dan Burton, as June’s backing dancer, Tulsa, gets a moment all to himself with All I Need Is The Girl and it is a showcase highlighting his elegance and skill as a hoofer.
Mention should be made of the children’s ensemble which start the show as Momma Rose’s fledgling performers.
They are led by a quite amazing Baby June (former “Matilda” Georgia Pemberton on press night), all blonde curls, dimples and spangly pink party dress who sings, twirls batons, does the splits and is the polished product of a proud and pushy stage-struck Momma.
The rest of the kids give superbly assured performances. They bound on stage, smiles in place, and flawlessly entertain, tapping their little hearts out like experienced troupers.
There must be some very proud, genuine, stage mums, who may or may not see the irony in their youngsters’ roles in a show about putting children on the stage.
The sensational Gypsy runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until November 8.