You don’t do “Gypsy” without a Momma Rose to match, and London hasn’t had a Momma Rose in more than 40 years. In that time, it’s gone without one of the great cautionary tales — much more than a mere showbiz myth. So thank goodness Stephen Sondheim figured Imelda Staunton for the role. She makes Rose many things, but above all, shows us that she’s got as much stomach as she has self-delusion. It’s a helluva performance: pitiable, infuriating, even outright objectionable, but somehow still admirable, in spite of it all.
In Jonathan Kent’s eloquent West End staging, a transfer from Chichester, Staunton makes Momma Rose every bit the equal of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s doomed salesman, but where he hawks his wares door-to-door, she’s selling her family. Rose runs a troupe of child vaudevillians, formed around her precocious daughter June (imagine Judy Garland as shrunk in the wash), with her gawky, overlooked sister Louise in support. Their act is her everything. She’ll eat dog food, unflinchingly, if it means extra cash for costumes. Whatever it takes — and more.
She’s a gutsy little gumball of a woman — and, in many ways, Rose’s strength is her weakness. When others would have given up, Momma Rose forges on, blind to the cracks in her now adolescent act; blind to the times (and tastes) a-changing; blind to the fact that it’s never going to come to good, no matter how hard she tries.
With her kids, she’s a drill sergeant, a mega-fan, a cult leader and even, yes, a mother — but there’s a child in there too, dancing along with them, part of the gang, and still, after all this time, dreaming a dream that should long since have been dropped. Dare to question it, and Rose snaps back a growl: “They’re real dreams” — and she gives up her home, her family and her happiness in pursuit of them. It’s the combination of determination and delusion that ruins her.
Rose isn’t just a failure though, and somewhere deep down, Staunton insists she’s a good mother. She might not build a home, she might shovel chow-mein down her young charges’ throats rather than cook for them, and she might put her own aspirations first, but Rose backs her kids to the absolute hilt. The moment June heads off on her own, Rose turns, without a split-second of doubt, to make a star of Lara Pulver’s Louise. She’s playful with her family, particularly in a winning “Together Wherever We Go” routine, and, as they wind up in the world of burlesque, fiercely protective as well. Her Rose absolutely wants the best for her daughters; she just has no idea what that best actually is.
Don’t forget that without her mother’s push, desperate and clawing though it is, Louise would never have become Gypsy Rose Lee, the superstar striptease, highly paid and happy at last. This is Louise’s story too, and Pulver blossoms beautifully: One of the boys to begin with, forever deferring to her mother, she eventually discovers, then comes to own, her femininity, and with it her voice. The questions are: Would she have found all that elsewhere, sooner, without Momma Rose? Does stripping mean selling out?
That’s where the true story of Rose Hovick becomes so potent a metaphor. Arthur Laurents’ book shows her life as one long race to the bottom, and Jule Styne’s gut-punchy numbers, leavened by Sondheim’s winking lyrics, slam the point home. From the two-bit strippers singing “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” to the pleading “Let Me Entertain You,” it’s always clear that show business (like any business) chews hopeful people up and spits them out as product. In her desperation to do the thing she loves, Momma Rose can’t see that the world’s moved on and her product doesn’t cut it.
Kent and his designer Anthony Ward make much of that, framing the action with painted backdrops and wobbling sets that nonetheless have a certain romance of their own. (When Rose travels, video kicks in; the modern world is all movement.) Aside from making an eloquent point about theater — that it is an art form built on revivals and repetition, which struggles to move forward — it lets the musical get away with its own theatricality. Stephen Mear’s exquisite choreography does much the reverse, sculpting ordinary actions into full-blown dance routines. There’s decent support from Peter Davison as Herbie and Gemma Sutton as June, but for all of these, it’s Staunton that brings this up roses.