The Hayes Theatre, Sydney
May 22, 2018
Few shows have endured the way the 1959 musical Gypsy has. With a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical is beloved for its psychologically rich characters and Jule Styne’s brassy score – neither of which have dulled with age. Loosely based on the memoirs of burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee, since its premiere the show has had numerous revivals on Broadway, with Rose – Gypsy’s hard-driving stage-mother – sung by the likes of Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and, in the recent West End revival, Imelda Staunton.
Director Richard Carroll’s new production for the Hayes Theatre, which sees Blazey Best in the role of Rose, eschews Broadway glitz for a stripped back, DIY, seat-of-the-pants aesthetic created by designer Alicia Clements (and effectively lit by Trent Suidgeest) in keeping with the era, the 1920s and 30s and the twilight years of Vaudeville, framed by a proscenium arch that stands in for a blur of run-down theatres and halls across the USA.
Blazey Best, Anthony Harkin and Laura Bunting in Hayes Theatre Co’s Gypsy. Photo © Phil Erbacher
Stripped back too is Blazey Best’s performance as Rose – she leans away from a larger-than-life caricature of vicious, deluded stage-mother, instead giving us an earnest and more human (though still manipulative) Rose whose anxieties and needs float closer to the surface. There’s an unfeigned warmth to her duet You’ll Never Get Away From Me with push-over agent Herbie (Anthony Harkin), and while her Some People felt slightly low-key in its delivery, there was an effectively jarring sense of unravelling in Everything’s Coming up Roses, which found its climax in Rose’s Turn.
Jessica Vickers is a shrill, high-intensity young June – coming off the back of her turn last year as another stage-child, Loretta in Miracle City – while Sophie Wright is her harder-edged and ambitious grown-up counterpart. Laura Bunting – who has appeared in the Hayes’ highly acclaimed productions of Calamity Jane and Assassins – charts an effective evolution as her sister, from shy, sidelined Louise (her growing awareness of her mother’s shortcomings is palpable) to glamorous burlesque superstar Gypsy Rose Lee. Her duet with Wright, If Momma was Married, is one of the highlights of the show.
Laura Bunting and Sophie Wright in Hayes Theatre Co’s Gypsy. Photo © Phil Erbacher
The company brings plenty of energy to the often absurd numbers choreographed by Cameron Mitchell, from the vaudeville talent-show tumbling over the Overture to Rose’s dream-inspired farmyard act – and Jane Watt puts in wonderful comic turns as both the no-nonsense assistant to New York producer Mr Grantzinger and burlesque strip-woman Tessie Tura. Mark Hill is fantastic as Tulsa, one of Rose’s child-turned-young-adult Vaudeville performers – his gripping song-and-dance number All I Need is the Girl conjuring a whole world on an empty stage.
The cast of Hayes Theatre Co’s Gypsy. Photo © Phil Erbacher
Carroll’s production delves into the psychological tensions between the characters and ultimately it’s stronger in the acting than the singing and music. Jule Styne’s orchestral score is here softened to a small band (fitting both Carroll’s vaudeville aesthetic and the intimate space) led by musical director Joe Accaria, in which woodwinds and drum kit feature heavily in a kind of portable arrangement that allows the musicians to drift on and off stage – often to nice effect, as in the chopsticks-and-crockery percussion of the joyous Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone. But while the drums keep the rhythms punchy, the thinner orchestration and absence of the gilded trumpet and brass lines dulls the sting of some of the climaxes, and this is particularly apparent in the final bars of numbers like Some People, Everything’s Coming Up Roses or Rose’s Turn, which didn’t quite land with the show-stopping force they can be capable of.
But Gypsy is a brilliant musical and there is much to love in Carroll’s production. Best gives a moving, heart-on-her-sleeve performance and the characters are given vivid and complex life in a show that, for all its fun, doesn’t shrink away from the gritty realities of vaudeville and burlesque.
Gypsy plays at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until June 30