Together Wherever We Go. Everything’s Coming Up Roses.
So optimistic seem Gypsy’s best-known songs you forget what a biting portrayal of the pursuit of the American Dream – fame rather than happiness – it is.
Gypsy is Broadway’s Mother Courage and nearly 60 years after the indomitable Ethel Merman played Mama Rose, she remains one of the great acting roles of the musical theatre genre.
And so it makes good sense to hire a fine actor to play her. Enter Blazey Best, who shuns Mermanesque boilerplate in favour of an emotionally complex reading of this most ambivalent of leading ladies.
Best doesn’t blaze a la Bette Midler or Patti LuPone (notable Broadway Mamas) when it comes to singing Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s songs. Instead, she lights them up from within and, arguably, her voice fits a character with an outsized view of her own talent.
That complexity comes at a cost, however, and some numbers have yet to find the balance between emotional detail and forward momentum.
That said, Best is powerful in a nightmarish final scene which sees Mama on the edge of sanity, in an imaginary spotlight, bumping and grinding in a desperate approximation of her daughter Louise’s celebrated burlesque act.
There are no acting weak links in the company.
Herbie, Mama Rose’s devoted doormat of a partner, is beautifully played by Anthony Harkin.
Jessica Vickers is suitably manic as the barnstorming Baby June, apple of Mama Rose’s eye, and Sophie Wright is excellent as the teenaged (though still infantilised) June. When a New York agent’s assistant wryly asks how old she is, there’s a delicious ambiguity to her reply.
Laura Bunting blooms as Louise morphs from boyish afterthought to bill-topping exotic dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, toast of New York City.
Mark Hill delivers an energetic and graceful dance number (courtesy of choreographer Cameron Mitchell) and there’s nimble comic teamwork from Matthew Predny and the tuba-wielding Rob Johnson, stalwarts of June’s Newsboys. Jane Watt is very funny as Tessie, the slatternly Wichita stripper.
A minimal but functionally elegant design by Alicia Clements combines the bare-boards sparseness of the Depression years with concentric false prosceniums that come into their own in a montage sequence tracking Louise’s rise to notoriety.
Prop setting and scenery shunting is the preserve of the cast (no one gets much time off in Gypsy’s three hours of stage time) and the production chugs along efficiently.
Under musical director Joe Accaria, the band (Damon Wade, Marty Holoubek, Abi McCunn and Lindsay Page) make regular forays to the stage, mutating from mini-orchestra to fleapit troubadours in a flash.
Gypsy is a colossally hard show to bring off and after a relatively brief rehearsal period and a handful of previews, opening night revealed a production getting to grips with its rhythm and scale.
Unlike Carroll’s Calamity Jane, which seemed fully-fledged on its press night, Gypsy, I think, has some way to go. But everything is pointing in the right direction and this show should be quite something when it gets there.