Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Jo Davies
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
How times have changed. Being a theatre-in-the round The Royal Exchange once struggled to stage musicals; now such shows are the high point of the season. Their storming production of West Side Story returns in the New Year and, in the meantime, we have Gypsy.
In the twilight years of Vaudeville Rose (Ria Jones), having failed to achieve stardom herself, concentrates on pushing her daughters June (Melissa Lowe) and Louise (Melissa James) into the spotlight. Rose focuses on June leaving Louise to disappear into the background as a dresser or the front half of a pantomime horse. However, as the family’s fortunes fade and they slip from Vaudeville to Burlesque, Louise gets the chance to become a star. There is just one catch …
Gypsy has the tagline ‘A musical fable’ and director Jo Davies takes this as her cue to create an impression of showbiz that might not be entirely factual but catches the mythical spirit of theatre. It is romantic but not rose-tinted and scenes often have contradictory features showing the pros and cons of life on the stage at the same time. Rapid and chaotic scene changes capture the hurly-burly of backstage life but the cast performing the changes are in full lavish costumes. The deadpan manner in which a trio of strippers proclaim the gimmicks that make their act essential indicates their awareness the acts really are not up to much.
Davies draws out sentiment to great effect. The relationship between the decent and loyal Herbie (a deeply sympathetic and dignified performance from Dale Ripley) and the conniving June brings emotional depth to the musical.
Despite the romantic tone, Davies does not shy away from the tatty aspects of showbiz or the dark side of June’s ambition. She stages the appalling routines June devises for her dance troupe with merciless precision leaving the audience breathless with laughter and squirming in embarrassment. It is amusing to watch June sabotage rival child performers by popping their balloons or tripping them mid-somersault. However, there is a distinctly creepy feel to the scene where June helps her daughter prepare for her debut as a stripper. It is hard to avoid the impression June is behaving like a pimp as she instructs Louise to avoid make-up and maintain a youthful appearance. The reappearance of a boy with whom Louise once chastely flirted and a white dress reflects her loss of innocence.
Francis O’Connor’s set echoes the sense that time is running out for Vaudeville. A length of lights, like a backstage dressing table, frames the stage and the balcony has a crest in the style of the grand old theatres. However, the silver backing on the mirrored floor is shabby and peeling.
While the show might have fantasy elements, Andrew Wright’s choreography is definitely the real deal. There are some stunning dances. Louis Gaunt has a show-stopping solo and there is a breathless montage of Louise, in her new persona as Gypsy Rose Lee, jumping from one routine to another and changing costumes in the process.
The cast are exceptional. The young actors who play the younger versions of June and Louise and their rivals are so professional they remain in character even when leaving the stage. Melissa Lowe as the preferred daughter June is a bundle of energy with barely–restrained enthusiasm. Melissa James, in a star-making performance, takes Louise from a diffident ungainly wallflower into a confident stunning young woman.
Rose is not an easy role- the character is actually monstrous. Ria Jones builds her incredible interpretation of Rose around the description of her as a pioneer woman without a frontier. Jones’s approach is raw and primal making Rose a force of nature determined to fulfil her frustrated ambitions through her daughters. You would not want to get in her way. Rose ought to be reprehensible but Jones makes her, if not admirable, at least understandable and very human. Jones also gives a powerhouse vocal performance that raises the roof. This is a show where the audience cheer individual songs not just the finale.
The Royal Exchange’s production of Gypsy is a show that has nothing to hit but the heights. Go on: let them entertain you.
Runs until 25 January 2020 | Image: Contributed