For a show listed among the greatest American Musicals, Gypsy certainly doesn’t get staged nearly as often as it deserves. After an absence in the West End for 43 years it was famously revived in 2015 with Imelda Staunton as Mama Rose, a role that’s been called the King Lear of musical theatre. Yet, despite its rapturous reception and the production winning numerous awards there was still no UK tour. So, the Royal Exchange’s staging of Gypsy as its Christmas show is a rare treat.
At its heart it’s a story of relationships, particularly between mother and daughter. Rose (Ria Jones) is the ultimate pushy mum, forcing her daughters, June and Louise on stage at every opportunity. Their second-rate vaudeville act becomes almost impossible to find a booking for in the depression of the 1920s and 1930s. But this doesn’t stop Rose from trying – desperate times only make her more desperate as she steals from her own father and hooks up with talent agent, Herbie – anything to get her daughters that enigmatic title of star.
Blinded by ambition she sings the chirpy, ‘Together’ oblivious to the deflated expressions of her family. All Herbie wants is to get married and all Louise wants is to join the couple in a settled home. That is until the world of burlesque comes calling, when sparks literally fly and Louise, who until now had played the front end of a cow, swings from the shining lights of a proscenium arch that spins on a revolve as her world changes.
Francis O’Connor has created an immersive and witty set, with plenty to look at – including a model train circling the gallery – while letting the characters shine. And shine they do. This an excellent all-round effort with terrific central performances from Dale Rapley as long-suffering Herbie; Melissa James as Louise who grows from nervous child performer into burlesque sensation, Gypsy Rose Lee; and Ria Jones whose powerhouse performance makes us feel every one of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. Jones creates a complex mix of dark and light in Rose, making us feel revulsion at her actions while still rooting for her to come good.
On paper, this dark subject matter, a fable based on the 1950s memoir of burlesque star, Gypsy Rose Lee, doesn’t immediately sit in festive territory. But a big song and dance show does, and in the Exchange’s intimate space Jule Styne’s huge Broadway tunes create a fizzing ball of energy that quickly pulls you into its world.
The orchestra is seated on the first balcony and the dancers high-kick to within centimetres of the front row. Director Jo Davies keeps it all spinning tightly for three hours. She never breaks the fourth wall while cleverly making us feel like there is no wall at all. The result is spontaneous surges of emotion from the audience that are almost tangible before the whole auditorium erupts into applause. This is entertainment at its best. The show has already been extended and now runs til February – don’t miss it!★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Gypsy is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 30 November 2019 – 1 February 2020