Ben Brantley, the chief theatre critic of The New York Times, once wrote that Gypsy “may be the greatest of all American musicals”. He’s not alone in that assessment; many theatre aficionados would argue that the show, inspired by Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoir, remains one of the finest works ever staged.
With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the classic book by Arthur Laurents, Gypsy premiered on Broadway in 1959 in a production directed by Jerome Robbins. Now, for the first time in more than four decades, a full professional production of Gypsy has opened in Sydney at Hayes Theatre Co. According to director Richard Carroll, it took almost three years to convince the show’s licensors to grant their permission for the production to be staged at the Hayes.
So, given the high regard in which the work is generally held and the rare opportunity this production affords fans to see it professionally staged, Gypsy at Hayes Theatre Co is one of the most anticipated event’s on the venue’s calendar for 2018.
Set in the 1920s, Gypsy is the story of one of the world’s most famous burlesque artists and the life that led her down that career path. It’s about her mother, Rose (Blazey Best), a woman singularly focused and unrelenting in her determination to see her child become a star. Initially, it’s her younger daughter, June (Jessica Vickers and Sophie Wright), who is marked for stardom. Rose creates a vaudeville act around June, in which her older sister, Louise (Laura Bunting), plays a lesser role.
Eventually tiring of her mother’s total control over her life, June abandons both the act and her family. Rose, rather than packing up and heading home to Seattle, turns her attention to Louise, resolving to find stardom for her older daughter. But as vaudeville dies, the opportunities for fame are no longer as easily found or, at least, not on the circuits on which Rose’s sights are set. When the act is unknowingly booked to perform at a Kansas burlesque house, it marks the beginning of a successful career for Louise on an entirely different stage.
An obvious warning for all potential stage parents about the havoc they can cause in their children’s lives – and the destructive impact their vicarious living can have on those relationships – Gypsy is a musical that stands the test of time. That owes in large part to Laurents’ adroitly written book and the eminent musical pieces (‘Some People’, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, ‘Rose’s Turn’) that have become standards of the canon.
Carroll, in his Director’s Note, says he’s never seen a production of Gypsy that “fully exposed the interior lives of these characters”, and his focus on humanising these characters is easily one of the most successful aspects of this production. The key characters feel multi-dimensional and make us care about their plights. We see Rose as the steadfast parent who will never abandon her children the way she was abandoned, and putting them centre stage is her disordered idea of giving love and attention.
In her portrayal of Rose, Blazey Best is every bit as hard, as domineering and as much of a stage mum on steroids as you want her to be. From the opening minutes of the show, her desperation for fame for her daughter is almost tangible. There’s never any doubt as to whose dream the players are pursuing. The problem is that Best’s acting strength is not quite matched here by her vocals. It’s imperative that Rose’s commanding presence is maintained through sung moments, and for Rose to intrepidly conquer those numbers just as she does the book scenes. On opening night, Best’s vocal performance did not quite fulfil that task, softening the impact of some key numbers. Fortunately, she finishes strongly, delivering a gutsy, exposed and unravelled performance of ‘Rose’s Turn’ that packs the right punch.
As precocious Baby June, Vickers is great. Wright is similarly strong taking on June in her late teen years, her terrific comedic timing an asset to her in this role. Laura Bunting is wonderful as Louise. It’s only towards the end of Act II that she has the opportunity to showcase her impressive vocals, but her character’s journey throughout the show is extremely well developed. We witness a believable transformation of Louise from a timid and awkward support player in her sister’s act, to perfectly poised burlesque star, who understands precisely what she brings to the table.
Following on from his recent appearance in The View UpStairs, Anthony Harkin returns to the Hayes as Herbie and it’s another adept performance from the actor, taking on the forgiving but hopeless talent agent, who remains wilfully blind to Rose’s motivations for keeping him around for as long as she can. Meanwhile, Jane Watt’s performance as Wichita stripper Tessie Tura is an Act II highlight, resulting in some of the production’s best laugh-out-loud moments.
Designer Alicia Clements (whose outstanding work on last year’s Assassins won her two Sydney Theatre Awards) has created a set that, while generally minimal, effectively locates us throughout. A stunning, ornately decorated proscenium arch is especially notable. There are some excellent costumes, particularly those we see modelled by Louise for fleeting moments towards the end of the piece when she finds success in burlesque.
Musical director Joe Accaria’s work to create a big sound with the talented five-piece band is commendable, but there are moments when you do think Styne’s music demands more in order to affect and impact as intended, and with the melody sometimes getting lost in the interpretation.
It’s a tremendous credit to the Hayes, and the production companies that keep its seats full, that it ventures into risky territory, bringing traditionally big shows to its intimate space to give local audiences the chance to see works unlikely to arrive at the Capitol or Sydney Lyric Theatre any time soon. Having this rare opportunity to see Gypsy represents a chance to witness writing for musical theatre that, six decades on, persists as an example of some of the finest in the art form.
GYPSY – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point)
Season: Playing now until 30 June, 2018
Times: Mon 6.30pm, Tue-Sat 7.30pm, Wed and Sat matinees 2pm (No performance on Monday 11 June)
Price: Mon-Thurs $89, Wed matinee $79, Sat matinee $89, Fri- Sat evening $99, Previews $79
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337