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Laurents, Sondheim and Styne

Buxton International Festival

Buxton Opera House

July 7, 9, 13, 16, 20, 24, 2022; 2hr 55min

Buxton International Festival and Buxton Opera House - 'Gypsy: A Musical Fable' - Joanna Riding as Mama Rose. Credit Genevieve Girling
Stage mother: Joanna Riding as Mama Rose in Gypsy, produced by Buxton International Festival and Buxton Opera House. All pics: Genevieve Girling

Putting a musical into the opera programme at Buxton’s International Festival was a novelty last year, and may have looked like a way of dealing with the short-term problems of a festival mounted mid-Covid.

But linking up with the Opera House’s own artistic director (and specialist in Stephen Sondheim) Paul Kerryson, was too good an idea to leave on one side after that, and this year their joint enterprise has borne extraordinary fruit: an ambitious Sondheim show done with style, confidence and panache.

Gypsy's place in Broadway history is special: two years after West Side Story, the team of Arthur Laurents (book), Sondheim (lyrics) and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins went for something completely different – a nostalgic tribute to vaudeville and the down-market side of the entertainment business.

Instead of Leonard Bernstein, the composer was Jule Styne, and his score caught the style of a bygone era perfectly and lifted what could have been pastiche or parody to something bigger and better than its originals.

The story was from the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, but it’s really about a mother and her daughter. Whether strictly true or not, it’s about living your life through your offspring’s search for stardom.

And what a stage mother “Mama Rose” is: she hustles and pushes and won’t take no for an answer, and you begin to realise that her own unfulfilled dreams are really driving everything she does. What might she have been?

Because it’s a memoir of real life, and a complicated piece of it too, the writing is as tight as zip wire, and the show needs to put one set of characters after another on the stage for a few moments, and then follow them with even more. Paul Kerryson has totally nailed this with his cast, which features a whole troupe of child performers who must be up to standard with the rest of them. They absolutely are – and the strobe-lit transformation as the kids become their older selves is pure stage magic.

True to its models, the show has its own numbers that, while perfect for their part of the story, are standards now: Let me entertain you, Together, wherever we go, Everything’s coming up roses

It’s great fun to see it so well done, and the leads are on top of their game – in particular Joanna Riding as Mama Rose, Monique Young as Louise (aka Gypsy), Hannah Everest as Louise’s sister, June, and David Leonard as Herbie, the family’s manager – and who could forget the amazing trio of Tiffany Graves, Rebecca Lisewski and Aiesha Pease in the Act Two glimpse of the world of burlesque?

The question with a from-life story like Gypsy is that we want to really care for at least one of the protagonists, and Laurents and Sondheim keep us guessing right to the end as to whether it’s Rose the mother, or Gypsy, the daughter who has told the story, that we’re rooting for most. Maybe amid all the punch and pizazz one or another in this cast could have tugged the heartstrings a tiny bit more, but for sheer sock-it-to-’em delivery the Buxton audience loved them all.

Ben Atkinson conducts a neat little amplified band.

Tickets and info here


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