REVIEW: Gypsy - 2015 London Revival

Recording CoverUnless you’ve been hiding under a rock, or perhaps abducted by aliens, you could hardly have missed the roars of acclaim for Imelda Staunton’s performance in last year’s revival of Gypsy. That level of hype isn’t always justified, but it was in this case: her Rose is as phenomenal a performance as I’ve ever seen in a theatre, musical or not, and it was also fascinating to watch UK audiences and critics rediscover a show that gets revived every ten minutes on Broadway but hadn’t been seen in the West End for over four decades.

You might, though, question whether it needed to be recorded, given that there are two relatively recent revival recordings from Broadway, one of which includes seven bonus tracks of material that was cut or replaced during the original production’s development in 1959. The answer is an emphatic yes – but if you love the show, this isn’t going to replace any of the earlier cast albums.

That said, it has a lot going for it. Staunton is the headline attraction, of course, and she delivers here - up to a point. That she has a strong singing voice should not come as too much of a surprise to anyone, given that she’s been (sporadically) doing musicals since the beginning of her career, but the strength of her voice may surprise those who haven’t heard her sing since she did ‘Guys and Dolls’ twenty years ago. She brings a great deal of light and shade to her Rose, crooning an urgently sexy ‘You’ll Never Get Away From Me’ and turning on the charm in ‘Together’, but she has more than enough vocal firepower to belt her way through the biggest (loudest) moments in the score, and her ‘Rose’s Turn’ is undeniably impressive. What you don’t quite get, unfortunately, is whatever ingredient made this such a towering performance in the theatre. She’s very good, but some of humour she brought to the role seems to have gone AWOL in the recording studio, and she isn’t quite the phenomenal force of nature you got at the Savoy.

Strangely, that does a great favour to her co-stars, who were, in the London reviews, sometimes unjustly left behind in the rush to praise Staunton’s extraordinary performance. In particular, Lara Pulver (Louise) and Peter Davison (Herbie) were every bit as good, each finding things in their scenes that I’d never seen before. Happily, they both come across very well indeed here. Davison is perhaps at a slight disadvantage, in that the meat of his role is largely in the book rather than the score, but his rough-around-the-edges singing is just right opposite Staunton’s take-no-prisoners Rose (in case you’re wondering – yes, he’s a better singer than Jack Klugman). Pulver is simply superb – childishly wistful in the first act, and her six-minute journey from awkward girl to poised woman in the Strip sequence near the climax of Act Two is very fine indeed. The strippers – Louise Gold, Julie Legrand, and Anita Louise Combe – are drolly hilarious, Dan Burton is as good a Tulsa as any on record, Gemma Sutton’s Dainty June is spot-on, and the kids, a few wobbly accents aside, are appropriately ghastly and very funny. This is as good a supporting cast as you’ll find on any of the other recordings of the show.

You may, though, miss the original orchestrations. In the theatre, the production used a band of fourteen, with the new orchestrations credited to the MD, Nicholas Skilbeck. The band sounds fuller than you might expect, and you don’t get that unpleasantly metallic synth string-pad sound you often hear in musical revivals that have swapped the string section for something cheaper – but you also don’t get a string section, and in this music, it’s missed. With so many other cast recordings of this particular score out there, it’s no bad thing that this one exactly reflects what you heard in the theatre – the recording does not use any additional musicians – and the playing and the music direction on the album are both unimpeachable, but the smaller quota of musicians and the lack of strings mean this probably isn’t going to add up to anyone’s idea of a definitive recording of ‘Gypsy’, despite a very strong set of performances.

And as for Staunton, it’s interesting to see which performances translate well to record, and which don’t. The recent-ish London revival recording of Sweeney Todd gives a far better impression of what made that performance so powerful in the theatre, and the reason isn’t immediately apparent. If you’re one of the lucky people who saw her, as I am, then you’ll certainly want this album as a souvenir, even if it dilutes the impression she made onstage; a DVD is apparently forthcoming, though (the production was taped at the Savoy and shown on the BBC over Christmas), and people who haven’t already experienced her performance may be better advised to wait, and catch it in a format where you can see as well as hear her.


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