There's no point in messing around with this: one of the all-time great Broadway musicals has been magnificently restored to the West End – forty years after Angela Lansbury led the London premiere – with a barnstorming, scathingly hard-edged performance from Imelda Staunton as the show business mother from hell who yearns for the spotlight while training it obsessively on her daughters.
If anything, Jonathan Kent's production – coming into an ideal proscenium venue from last year's Chichester season – is smarter and spunkier than that Lansbury version, but this is still very much a replica of the Jerome Robbins staging, and there's no attempt to be "clever" with it, which is right.
Jule Styne's brassy, triumphant music, Arthur Laurents's armour-clad structured book, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics – especially in the first act – are simply the best. Momma Rose (Staunton) leads her little troupe across America as vaudeville expires around them and the money runs out, and when her favourite baby June (a squawkingly brilliant Shirley Temple type from Scarlet Roche, morphing into Gemma Sutton's grown-up version) goes off with one of the boys, she grudgingly nudges elder daughter Louise (Laura Pulver), the future Gypsy Rose Lee, into low-rent burlesque.
The refrain of "Let Me Entertain You" runs like a motif through the show, marking the shifting fortunes and circumstances of the troupe and leading finally to "Rose's Turn" where Staunton completes her pact with the audience in one of the most extraordinary sequences in musical theatre, a confessional breakdown bordering on hysteria which builds into a standing ovation (from us) before the pathetic exit, on an upstage diagonal, with the newly fêted stripper, her daughter, the lauded ecdysiast.
An ecdysiast is a shedder of skin, a definition wittily built into the Laurents script, as are so many details of performance and process. Even the seedy strippers in Wichita get in on the act, laying down a handbook for the art form ("If you wanna bump it, bump it with a trumpet" declares Louise Gold's Wagnerian half-clad horn-blower), and Momma herself is always in the wings, shifting scenery, fixing costumes, performing by proxy ("Sing out, Louise").
It's in my nature to have niggles, so although Peter Davison's Herbie (replacing Kevin Whateley at Chichester) is plausible, even touching in the final separation scene, he doesn't make too hot with the singing. And Staunton herself leaves absolutely no room for us to love her, for all her faults. She's relentless in hunting down the big game of her big number, and you miss a moistness of magic in the madness. But this is still a great dramatic performance of one of the great roles, and she's awesomely in control, unapologetically flat-footed and hausfrau-wigged.
From the moment the overture strikes up, the footlights swivel into position and the red curtain rises, you're in musical theatre heaven. The first act in particular is powered with a dramatic momentum that spreads through the songs; you go in one end and come out the other somewhere else, often geographically as well as emotionally. Not many shows do this.
The efficient designs of Anthony Ward and gorgeous choreography of Stephen Mear – June's romantic nemesis, Tulsa, is brilliantly danced ("All I Need is the Girl") by Dan Burton - are as good as it gets without breaking the mould. Jack Chissick as Mr Goldstone, who looks as though he might explode when offered an egg roll, is a picture of red-faced bemusement as the booking agent cornered by the whole family in nightwear, and Julie Legrand scores a notable double as a camp, primly disapproving producer's secretary and as a particularly washed-out stripper who still lights up at the push of a button.
Gypsy is running at the Savoy Theatre. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
The London cast recording is being released on 27 April. You can view a sample here.