(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/16.)
Jonathan Kent’s production of this fabulous musical, unseen in the West End for over 40 years, has got even better since its Chichester debut last autumn. Since the show is about Momma Rose’s attempt to turn her progeny into vaudeville stars, it sits perfectly in a traditional proscenium theatre.
Even the overture, played with gusto by the pit orchestra under Nicholas Skilbeck’s baton, creates a sense of anticipatory excitement. The show itself, first seen on Broadway in 1959, is a testament to the power of the integrated musical in that the book by Arthur Laurents, the music by Jule Styne and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are all partners in a genuine coalition. On the one hand, they evoke the tackiness of the touring vaudeville circuit of the 1920s and 30s where children were mercilessly exploited. But the show’s co-creators also come up with an unforgettable protagonist in Momma Rose herself: “a showbiz Oedipus”, as Sondheim called her, wrapped in self-delusion but also periodically engaging in her determination to take on the industry’s titans in order to promote her children.