Royal Exchange, Manchester.
In recent years the Royal Exchange has been serving up a musical as their festive season main course, and things are no different this year. A rags-to-riches story, set in 1920’s Vaudeville and packed with familiar tunes, Gypsy promises a touch of glitz and glamour to brighten the winter months. It also brings with it one of Broadway’s most legendary roles – Mama Rose, the ultimate showbusiness mother.
“My daughters are my job, and I have two of them“, says Mama Rose. That might be three less than Kris Jenner but Rose still makes her look like a lightweight in the momager stakes. The word ‘job’ doesn’t do justice to Rose’s efforts to secure fame for her offspring. Shamelessly bulldozing her way through a succession of auditions, and trampling anything in her path, it’s more total obsession than career choice.
Gypsy follows Rose’s endeavours to find theatrical work for her family at a time when the life is being squeezed out of the Vaudeville circuit by the impact of the Depression and the arrival of the talkies.
Ria Jones is Mama Rose, and there is no doubting her vocal abilities in the role (when she launches into ‘Rose’s Turn‘ it is breathtaking in its intensity) but director Jo Davies’s decision to soften the edges of Mama Rose leaves the characterisation running hot and cold, to the point where she doesn’t always hold together as someone credible.
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops when it comes to the staging of the musical numbers either. In particular, ‘Some People’ is delivered almost entirely to Roses’s Papa which is great for him but not for the half of the audience who are sat looking at Ria Jones’ back throughout – some people like to see a performance as well as hear it.
Talking of which, the metal-framed proscenium arch that dominates the space is spun around at various points in the show. Like some huge arrow on a Wheel of Fortune it brings bad luck for some – in this case, those audience members left with an obstructed view when it comes to rest right in front of them.
Such frustrations are surprising as Davies is not unfamiliar with the Exchange’s unique auditorium having used it previously for her rather magical Twelfth Night. Gypsy is obviously a more down to earth undertaking but Davies still manages to gift it a beautiful fluidity. Transformations occur seamlessly before our eyes, especially in two cleverly choreographed scenes where Mama Rose’s troupe of child performers become suddenly young adults, and then later in a depiction of Gypsy’s growing confidence as her career in burlesque takes off. Even the transitions between scenes are as smooth as silk, occasionally offering glimpses of a lost Vaudevillian world of chorus girls and hoofers, a busy buzzing backstage life flitting past.
That era is also elegantly referenced in the way the show looks, with glowing rows of light bulbs, smoke-dappled follow spots, and a scattering of old theatre seats, costume baskets and props.
“If there’s anything I hate worse than kids, it’s kids on stage” sighs one of the many men standing between Rose and her ambitions. Yet Davies’s production tells a different story. These ‘kids’ are alright. Her effervescent younger cast members dazzle, but the talent on display also serves to highlight the musical’s positive depiction of that new upcoming generation. As they develop into young adults, the characters are smart, resilient and resourceful, making their own decisions and ultimately refusing to be pushed around by those old enough to know better.
As Tulsa, Louis Gaunt is mesmerising as he dances across the stage to ‘All I Need Is The Girl‘, while as his younger incarnation Adam Abbou is eye-catchingly acrobatic. However, if you were looking for a standout performance, one with depth and immense charm, look no further than Melissa James. As Louise the daughter who takes the world of burlesque by storm as Gypsy Rose Lee, James gracefully reclaims the show for the character whose name is ‘above the door’.
A footnote of sorts – hold your hats and hallelujah…
I’ve seen Gypsy twice now. Since its opening week, when I first saw it, it has shed 25 minutes, and it’s now a spritelier and slicker show. In particular, ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’ really benefits from the tighter approach, still bringing a welcome Fosse-esque edge to proceedings but understanding the value of leaving the audience wanting more.
On my second visit, I was also lucky enough to see Rebecca Thornhill as Mama Rose. Thornhill has certainly been earning her understudy’s fee. Her Rose is hungry for success, prowling the stage during ‘Some People‘ and possessed by a restless and forceful energy throughout. There’s an underlying toughness too, that makes for an impressive and cohesive performance – so when Thornhill’s Rose burns her bridges with Herbie it’s still shocking but not irreconcilable with who she was before. Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here’s Rose!
Performances seen – 5 December 2019 & 2 January 2020.
Images by Johan Persson.