YES, before we go any further, I enjoyed Caroline O’Connor‘s performance as Rose in Gypsy. I enjoyed it quite a lot. I enjoyed it so much that I may have to become the founder of some kind of religion devoted to her worship. It’s a tedious nuisance – I’m quite busy this week, and I could really do without the hassle – but it seems, on the evidence of this afternoon, that Ms. O’Connor is some kind of musical theatre goddess, so sacrifices may have to be made. Don’t worry, the lamb is safe… although, suspiciously, it does not appear in Act Two.
I should also say upfront that – and I know I’m not alone in this – I think Gypsy is one of the two or three very best golden-era American musicals. It has a tight, taut book by Arthur Laurents that tells a gripping (and surprisingly dark) story with commendable wit and economy, the book is matched by a peerless score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, the role of Rose, the show’s central character, is very possibly the closest anyone has come to creating a Twentieth Century King Lear, and the first four notes of the stunning overture could possibly bring a corpse back to life. As a piece of writing, it is, as they say, a total wow, not to mention a hell of a challenge for any actor or director who chooses to take it on – but unless a director really screws it up, I’m probably going to like at least some things about any production.
Gypsy is, of course, a based-on-a-true-story depression-era backstage musical, in which Rose, a steamroller of a stage mother, pushes her daughters onstage in a series of awful vaudeville acts in the desperate hope that one of them will get the opportunity to become a star that had eluded her in her own childhood. When the older daughter, June, abandons both the act and her family to run away to try to make a name for herself as a legitimate actress (and, oh yes, marry a chorus boy), Rose fixes her attention on Louise, the younger sister, whose relative lack of talent had, until that point, kept her firmly in the background. Rose avows her intention to make Louise a star; when the vaudeville circuit collapses and the act, out of financial desperation, accepts a booking in a house of burlesque, a chain of events is set in motion that culminates in Louise becoming the world-famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Facing abandonment by a second daughter, Rose undergoes what more or less amounts to a nervous breakdown when she begins to see that she’s pushed her children (and lover) away by projecting her own ambitions onto them. We’re not exactly in happy showbiz land; if they’re done right, the last three scenes in Act Two are simultaneously electrifying and desperately moving.
Unfortunately, on this side of the Atlantic, it doesn’t seem to get done very often, perhaps partly because that central role is so challenging – and partly because, great as it is, it covers some quite difficult emotional territory and it’s never been that big a hit, although it seems to get revived on Broadway about every ten minutes. The last time I saw it on this side of the Atlantic was eighteen years ago at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a production starring the great Sheila Hancock, who should have been dynamite but wasn’t, mostly because of misdirection. It’s on the relatively short list of plays that I would travel pretty much anywhere to see (although I missed the last Broadway revival), I own copies of all four major cast recordings, and I can pretty much recite big chunks of the script. I love it so much, I voluntarily parted with my own money in order to see a production of it starring Bernadette Peters, something I swore I’d never do again after the lazy, disconnected horror of a performance she perpetrated the night I saw The Goodbye Girl (Bernadette, honey: if a thousand-odd people have all forked over cash in order to watch you perform, the least you can do – the very least you can do – is look as if you actually want to be there, rather than spending the entire evening mumbling your lines, refusing to maintain eye contact with any of your fellow performers, and generally wafting around the stage like a sloth on Mogadon). To me, in short, getting to see pretty much any production of this show counts as an Event.
And this production – at Curve in Leicester, a convenient more-than-three-hours-with-at-least-two-changes train journey from where I live – is worth getting excited about. It’s directed by Paul Kerryson, the theatre’s artistic director, whose British productions of American musicals have been consistently impressive (his UK premiere production of The Light in the Piazza was absolutely gorgeous, and – going back a lot further – his stagings of Chicago, Company and Sweeney Todd at the Oldham Coliseum were major factors in the process that turned my more-than-passing adolescent interest in musical theatre into the terrifying geek streak that threatens to rule my life), and it gives as good an account of the show as you could ever hope to see, even given that the resources available are necessarily limited compared to the scale of production you’d expect to find on Broadway or in the West End.
Fortunately, because the show is set a) in the depression and b) mostly backstage in run-down theatres, it doesn’t require a great deal of candy-wrapping, or a particularly opulent set. Here, we open on a bare stage that’s illuminated only by a ghost light; Sara Perks’s clever set consists largely of a drop curtain and flown black-and-white billboards showing depression-era advertisements; this is a road story as well as a backstage musical, and the different locations are indicated by changing the adverts that are projected on the billboards, and the largest billboard is big enough that scenes can be performed ‘in one’, in front of it. The front five rows of seats have been removed, enabling a runway to be constructed around the orchestra pit. Aside from a few flats with doors, furniture as needed, and the sets for the diegetic vaudeville and burlesque numbers, that’s pretty much it; sensitively lit by Philip Gladwell, it’s simple and evocative, and it works beautifully.
On this set, we have possibly the hardest-working cast in British Equity. The adult roles are divided between just thirteen actors (there’s a team of children for the kiddie numbers in Act One, obviously); outside of the four lead roles, that means that nine actors play, well, everybody, with frequent changes of costumes and wigs. Because I didn’t read the programme before the show started, it wasn’t until the curtain call that I realised just how few people I’d been watching, and they deliver the show with such conviction and style that the few shortcomings – the acting from the ensemble is often better than the singing, and Jason Winter’s Tulsa struggles with the higher notes in ‘All I Need is the Girl’ and could really do with having the song dropped a couple of steps – are pretty much irrelevant. The kids are terrific, with particularly sharp work from Hollie Pugh as the younger Louise, and the kiddie-show numbers are appropriately and hilariously ghastly.
The leads are even better. David Fleeshman’s Herbie (Rose’s lover and the act’s agent) and Daisy Maywood’s Dainty June are both flawless, and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt finds every single shade in Louise’s gradual transformation from ugly duckling into imperious star. But the evening belongs to Caroline O’Connor’s Rose. She’s charming, monstrous, iron-lunged, sexy, a force of nature; when she tears into ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ at the end of Act One, she’s terrifying (Hamilton-Barritt’s Louise actually seems to shrink in fear as she watches), and in ‘Rose’s Turn’, her breakdown at the climax of Act Two, the devastating force of her performance pins you back in your seat. The final scene between Rose and Louise, here, is heartbreaking; this is a star turn in the truest sense, absolutely compelling, and as good as any leading performance I’ve ever seen, and she’s matched at every step by her co-stars. And fans of the score will be relieved to learn that, unlike Ms. Patti LuPone, Ms. O’Connor manages to deliver the big final note at the end of ‘Rose’s Turn’ without emitting a noise that resembles the sound a Dyson makes when you accidentally run it over a plastic bag.
Do I have any quibbles? Yes, a couple. While I loved the set, there were a couple of places, particularly in the strip montage in Act Two, where the transitions really needed to happen a little bit more quickly in order to maintain the momentum of the performance. And while I have no right to expect to hear the full original orchestrations in a regional theatre production that must have been put up on a relatively tight budget, I do miss the original orchestrations. Here we have a band of ten (four reeds, two trumpets, trombone, bass, percussion and piano); the reduced orchestration (uncredited in the programme, but I seem to recall hearing a mention in an interview or on a podcast that it’s by Julian Kelly, who has worked with Kerryson several times before) is very sensitively done, and Michael Haslam’s musical direction, like nearly everything else, is flawless… but the sound of the full orchestration is missed, particularly in the overture.
Despite those (minor) quibbles, though, this is, quite simply, as good a regional production of a musical as I ever hope to see. Even with the reduced orchestrations, smaller budget, and smaller cast, it stands head and shoulders above the revival I saw on Broadway.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and start building a shrine.