In his director's notes for NOVA's Gypsy, Neil Goodwin mentions being a fan of 'musicals with a strong story', and notes that 'Stephen Sondheim was reported to have said to Arthur Laurents that his book for Gypsy was so strong that it did not need the score to be successful'. Goodwin's love of book-driven musicals is evidenced by the level of work he has done with the cast, for these are characters with clear motivations and defined personalities. The design concept for the staging ensures that it is the book that is the show's key feature, for its sparseness provides no distraction from the drama as it plays out. In Goodwin's hands, this production of Gypsy has pace, depth, and great charm.
The programme credits Noel Browne as set co-ordinator, but it is unclear if the set design itself is of Browne's creation, Goodwin's creation, a joint effort, or from some external source. It would be great to know whom to give the due credit, for the set works perfectly to bring about Goodwin's vision for the show. The simplicity of the upstage brick wall and the view of the reverse side of a row of basic flats, serving as wings, provided a great 'staging area' in which the drama of Gypsy could play out. The bareness of the space highlighter the lack of glamour that truly exists in backstage world of theatre. The ingenuity of the design also lends itself to being transformed into a 'performance space' during a staged production numbers, the show within the show – when Baby June and her Newsboys/Farmboys were in action, or Gypsy Rose Lee took to the stage for the full 'Let Me Entertain You' Strip sequence. Representative props such as a door, a chair, or a dressing table, to list a few examples, were used to suggest each location, leaving the audience to fill in the full scene in their mind's eye.
Complementing the set was Michael Zagarn's lighting design. In keeping with the director's vision of the show, the lighting for the 'real world' was stark and largely without colour, while the staged numbers were given a more effected lighting state – far more light and shade, with balanced colour. The exception to these states was the character of Rose – it was as though she had her own lighting plot, as if to further accentuate her inner moments of on-stage and off-stage. Within the book, Rose never sings in an 'on-stage number'. Yet, each time she sang, lighting was used to portray her as being on-stage, even if this larger-than-life expression of each moment was only happening in Rose's head. It was an effect that worked very well. One very touching use of this heightened lighting effect was during 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' – a full spotlight focused on Rose, while Herbie and Louise consoled each other in barely lit darkness, beautifully contrasting the divided positions at play.
Peter Caffyn has assembled an orchestra of strong players. The overture had a very well balanced sound, and it set things up in the audience's mind for a great afternoon's entertainment. Particular mention just go to the brass section – they were always tight, and the punchy, bright sound they contributed was the perfect tone for the show. Sound design by Steve Hobbins was a great support to the work of Caffyn, the orchestra and the cast. The mix of sound was always appropriate, with the orchestra never being too loud, and was, for the most part, well balanced with the cast. The only time there was an issue with being able to hear the cast over orchestra was towards the end of Gypsy's strip sequence. Whilst is it clear that a lack of attire leaves nowhere for a body mic pack to be worn, the use of a hung boom mic would certainly have aided projection for Gypsy, and made that moment all the more engaging for the audience.
Choreography by Roslyn Gaffney was simple, but effective. At times, the dancers needed to be more synchronised, for example the Yonkers/Patsy/Tulsa trio during the 'Broadway' sequence. For audience members familiar with the 1993 telemovie of Gypsy, starring Bette Midler, a feeling of déjà vu may have been present at times, as some of the choreography was fashioned after the aforementioned film – notably, Baby June's repetitive 'jumps and kick' curtain call signature move, and the closing stages of 'All I Need Is The Girl'. Perhaps a choreography book is supplied with the rights making it possible for the audience to enjoy seeing these figures live on stage, but in the midst of a very unique design concept, it would have been great to see Gaffney's stamp across the whole of the choreography.
The cast have been appropriately attired by costume co-ordinator Stephanie Lumb. All costumes are period appropriate, and most striking are the outfits of The Toreadorables, Rose's dress (perhaps wedding dress) for the scene in which she thrusts Louise into the role of striptease replacement, and Gypsy's split skirt-front frock for the Strip sequence.
The production team have assembled a very talented cast. In the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, Nicole Kapiniaris very capably takes the character of Louise from an awkward, shy young girl to a sophisticated, striking woman who knows her own mind. The sweet, innocent vocal quality she brought to her delivery of 'Little Lamb' gave way to a brash confidence as she performed 'Let Me Entertain You', once Gypsy had come into her own. Clearly a consummate performer, kudos must go to Kapiniaris for not flinching an inch and simply continuing on through the Strip sequence when things went somewhat awry in the orchestral accompaniment at that point.
Rob Clark presented Herbie Sommers with great sensitivity, and gave the character such beautiful heart that his performance brought tears to the eyes of the audience when Rose broke her word for the last time. The only disappointing part of Clark's performance was that the character doesn't have more to sing, for his voice is so rich and mellifluous that you just want to hear more of it.
As Louise's younger, precocious sister, Claire de Freitas had great characterisation as June Hovick. She allowed us to see June grow from being the spoilt sister who was happy to let her mother turn her into a star to a young woman who was tired of not having her life as her own. Particularly enjoyable was her scene in Kringelein's secretary's office. de Freitas' choice of vocal colour was most suitable for the character, however, some pitching issues during 'If Momma was Married' did detract from her performance.
The dancing from Ju-Han Soon as Tulsa was effortless and smooth. As he presented Tulsa's song and dance number, 'All I Need Is The Girl', the audience was treated to a voice of pleasing vocal tone. Soon's voice did have a slightly shaky top, but this may simply have been a fatigue issue. Peter Ozard as Uncle Jocko brought the right combination of Scottish accent and crotchety old man to the role to make him utterly charming. As the trio of strippers, Maureen J. Andrew (Tessie Tura), Sapphira (Electra), and Cassandra Beckitt (Mazeppa) brought the house down with 'You Gotta Get A Gimmick'. Andrew's additional scenes were a delight, just the right combination of sass and the kind of brassiness that come from being washed up. Special mention must go to Kim Siemensma as Miss Cratchitt, the driest, most amusing secretary ever seen.
Opening the show, the children's ensemble were ably led by the junior counterparts of Kapiniaris and de Freitas – Grace Saunders as Baby June and Kandice Joye as Young Louise each gave confident portrayals of two girls thrust into the spotlight by an overbearing mother, but clearly portrayed very different responses to being in the same situation. In a show driven by the principal cast, the supporting ensemble do not feature a great deal in Gypsy, but when they are on stage, the ensemble are in the moment of each scene, and sing strongly.
Any production of Gypsy will stand or fall on the strength of the actress playing Rose Hovick. When professional productions have been mounted in the past, the mean age of the noted actresses in the role (Merman, Peters, LuPone, Daly, O'Connor, and Lansbury) is fifty one. Goodwin has gone out on a limb by casting an actress who is relatively young, compared to the average age of the aforementioned actresses – and his calculated risk has paid off in spades. Jaclyn De Vincentis may be younger than the norm to be cast as Mama Rose, but this factor does not present even the slightest problem to her portrayal.
From the first moment she appears, De Vincentis holds the stage with authoritative command. She brings everything she has to the character and holds nothing back – dogmatic single mindedness; sudden anger; tender flirtation; abject despair when she's deserted by June and, subsequently, Herbie. In the monologue prior to 'Rose's Turn', it would have been possible to hear a pin drop in the auditorium, such was the level of engagement De Vincentis elicited from the audience. Her vocal prowess was evident on more than one level: as the ultimate stage mother, Rose's delivery was up-front, belted and demanding of attention, and then, when she sang to Herbie, De Vincentis chose a more gentle vocal quality, one that was enticing to her romantic target, and that showed a softer side to the character.
All in all, her Mama Rose is a powerhouse performance – a quality star turn which one would look far to find surpassed in any arena, both professional and non-professional. If you have yet to see NOVA's Gypsy, then make it as priority this week – book the babysitter, cancel your dinner plans and book some seats so that you, too, can see De Vincentis in what may well become her signature role.
Gypsy is playing at the Whitehorse Centre until Sunday November 10th
Maxine studied at the Conservatorium of Music at University of Melbourne (BMus), Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University (GradDipMus in Opera Performance), and at the National Opera Studio in London. In 2009, she was the recipient of the Opera Foundation Australia Vienna State Opera Award. Operatic performances include Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Magda in La rondine (both with Melbourne City Opera), Musetta in La bohème and Micaela in Carmen (both for Melbourne Opera). In 2010-11, Maxine was a member of Victorian Opera's Developing Artists Program, and during that time, she performed the roles of Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw, Second Lady in The Magic Flute, and Lady Billows in Albert Herring for the company. Max has been involved in music theatre for over 25 years in various capacities, doing everything from props and choreography to lighting and ushering. Some of her favourite performances include The Witch in Into The Woods (ACUPA), Mrs Phagan in Parade (Waterdale) and Rona in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (BLOC). She won a Victorian Music Theatre Guild Award for Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd with BLOC in 2003. In 2014, Max is hoping to return to uni to undertake her Master of Music Studies in Vocal Pedagogy.