Updated: Aug 3
Book: Arthur Laurents. Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Music: Jule Styne.
Royal Exchange, Manchester.
November 30, 2019 - January 26, 2020; 3hr
It still seems the unlikeliest venue in which to see stage-bursting great American musicals but Manchester’s wraparound venue manages it yet again, in a five-star triumph of containment and entertainment.
After Sweet Charity, The Producers and West Side Story comes the show whose anthem, Let Me Entertain You, never does anything less...
It’s the musical fable based on the 50s memoir of Louise Hovick, the infantilised woman who became striptease sensation Gypsy Rose Lee. As such there are dark undercurrents of what would now be regarded as child abuse, modern slavery, even sexploitation – themes that might sit uneasily with some modern sentiments.
But Gypsy has to be judged by its period setting, the between-the-wars time of poverty and uncertainty, and when vaudeville theatre was being usurped by burlesque.
Nevertheless the comedy here comes naturally – Arthur Laurents’ book has some zinging one-liners, Stephen Sondheim times the rhythm of his lyrics with ’em, and Jule Styne’s music borrows from the style of the Jazz Age.
It’s a show designed for proscenium-stage theatres. but Francis O’Connor’s set gets round that, literally, with a revolving proscenium arch that becomes a whirling platform at the moment of Louise’s burlesque baptism.
As a youngster she has been disregarded by her Queen Lear of a mother, more determined to make a child star of younger sister June, until mum’s naked ambition becomes just that.
The mix of dark drama and light comedy – with song and dance – demands meticulous casting, never mind the huge backstage team evident from the programme. In West End star Ria Jones this production has a standout performance of tyrannical motherhood, matched by that of Melissa James as the daughter who morphs into a butterfly before our eyes. One has the acting chops to give us a fully-fleshed Momma Rose, besides one of those classic Ethel Merman-style warbling voices; while the other conveys the quiet grace of unrealised beauty, to be the needy child turned show star.
Director Jo Davies’s experience with opera is evident throughout. She conjures star-making performances by everyone from the child performers, whose over-rehearsed sequences steal the scenes in the first act; via Louis Gaunt’s ballet cameo as Tulsa (with almost impossibly restrained choreography from Andrew Wright); to show-stopping strippers Tessie, Mazeppa and Electra in the second act.
Their interpretation of You Gotta Get A Gimmick climaxes with a whole new definition of bump and grind. Just one more thing in a show that sparkles and fizzes throughout.