BWW REVIEW: The Story Of The Ultimate Overbearing Stagemother Plays Out In GYPSY
Tuesday 22nd May 2018, 7:30pm Hayes Theatre
Stephen Sondheim (Lyrics), Jule Styne (Music) and Arthur Laurents (Book) famous musical GYPSY, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, comes to the Hayes Theatre, 59 years after it made its Broadway Debut in 1959. Acclaimed as one of the greatest American musicals, this work that is regularly covered by cabaret artists around the world still holds a relevance in the modern age as overbearing parents persist in pushing their offspring to the limit, forgetting to properly parent.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, GYPSY loosely follows the life of American burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, known as Louise (Laura Bunting) to her family, and her manipulative and ambitious mother Rose (Blazey Best) who made a living out of having Louise's sister June (Jessica Vickers and Sophie Wright) perform in vaudeville following the breakdown of her second marriage. When June elopes with one of the boys from the act, Rose must rely on Louise to save them from financial ruin but Louise was never the singer and dancer that her sister was and vaudeville is dying so when hopes are fading, she pushes Louise into another line of entertainment, burlesque, with her 'gimmick' being that she will remain classy.
Alicia Clements (Designer) has transformed the Hayes Theatre into the velvet curtained proscenium theatres of the early 20th century with exposed iron beams and a series of travellers to alter the space of the stage and obscure the rear iron door. The accoutrements of the various theatres that Rose and her daughters find themselves in make way for simple items to help transport the story to crowded motel rooms, train stations and Rose's father's meagre family home. Clements keeps the costuming equally simple, partly in consideration of the poor travelling performer lifestyle and simplicity for the small cast. Rose remains in the same ill fitting blue frock which she modifies over time and Louise adopts a tomboy style as the focus remains on her sister in confections of lace and frills despite her increasing age. Whilst Louise's transformation to Gypsy sees her in sequins and sparkle, Clements could possibly have consulted more closely with designers of the specialist art of tearaway burlesque clothes that would give the impression of clothes just falling off accidentally which was one of the real Gypsy Rose Lee's signatures rather than the obvious struggle that Bunting had with her gowns. Musical Director Joe Accaria has pared back Styne's score to suit a simplified band of 5 comprising of Accaria on percussion, Damon Wade (Associate Musical Director) on keys, Marty Holoubek on upright bass, Abi McCunnon woodwinds and Lindsay Page on brass, accordion and piano. Whilst he's able to add a travelling band element to the work it doesn't always land as bold as the original intention and GYPSY should be a big bold expression.
The intimate space of Hayes Theatre holds the potential for Director Richard Carroll to express the intricacies of the maniacal Rose to allow the audience to see more of what makes this mother tick but often the nuance and sensitivity that could have allowed a connection is lost as Best positions Rose in a place of perpetual anger with lyrics growled through gritted teeth and a shouting tone colouring almost all of her expression. Whilst Carroll talks of exploring Rose's underlying essence in his Director's note, nothing is done to make her in any way likable or give her any redeeming features. It is a big role to play and the gutsy theatre greats like Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone have made it work on stage and many more will be familiar with Bette Midler's movie rendition of the role, but it takes a certain understanding of the character and ability to connect with Rose and therefore ensure that the audience connects with her to carry it off and Best doesn't quite tap into that.
The saving graces of the performance come from Laura Bunting's forgotten daughter, Anthony Harkin's hapless Herbie, Sophie Wright's droll comic timing as adult June and Mazeppa, Jane Watt's endearing expression of worldly Tessie Tura and Mark Hill's delightful dancing and singing as the lovesick Tulsa singing All I Need Is The Girl. Bunting is emotionally connected to Louise as she delivers an expression of a daughter resigned to the fact that she'll never be her mother's favourite as Rose resents her for the inability to perform as well as her sister. Bunting ensures that the audience sees the transition from child and young woman wanting to keep everyone happy to having the confidence to take joy in achieving the success her mother seemingly wanted for her even though she is met with resentment and bitterness. Her vocals are pure and solid as she works through the range of emotions from the sweet Little Lamb, the playful and cynical If Momma Was Married and a seductive Let Me Entertain You. As the older June, Wright delivers a fabulous contrast between the illusion Rose wants to perpetuate and the real woman that June has grown up into who also has a more realistic view of her mother as she can see the true demon her mother is despite her sister's persistent positivity. Harkin gives Rose's patient suitor Herbie a delightfully hang dog expression whilst expressing a seemingly unending devotion and denial at the inevitable fact that Rose can't let the idea of achieving fame go.
In an era of reality television talent shows and various beauty pageants that show domineering stage mothers the underlying story of greed and ambition over parental obligation to nurture and encourage children with love and care is still relevant. This relevance, paired with the book, score and lyrics that combine to become what is considered to be one of the best musicals should be the makings of a stand out show but unfortunately the lynchpin fails to hold the work together to achieve the depth and connection that Carroll intended, and the rest of the ensemble aren't enough to counter this weakness, so the work is nice at best but somewhat of a disappointment given Carroll's recent successes.