Theatre Review: Gypsy @ Buxton Opera House

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Buxton Festival kicked off its season with this production of Gypsy – A Musical Fable in conjunction with the Opera House.

A classic musical from the late 1950s that is yet another example of the memorable musical theatre that came from the pen of the much-missed Stephen Sondheim, its appearance has been eagerly awaited. Let there be no mistake, this production was a perfect way to pass a summer’s evening and had the packed audience on its feet at the finale.

Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee – the girl who brought glamour to the seedy world of burlesque and striptease and whose name lives on almost a century after the events in the play took place – and focuses on the impact of the stripper’s mother Rose.

Desperate to turn her two children into stars of vaudeville, the act flourishes at first as daughters June and Louise perform a vibrant juvenile act. Rose enlists Herbie – a one-time theatrical agent turned candy salesman – to promote the act and the pair rapidly become lovers.

Unfortunately for the act, Rose attempts to continue to promote it as a children’s performance despite the girls advancing into young adulthood and attempts to re-invent the routine are purely a rehash of the old idea. A frustrated June – seen as the talent of the family – deserts the act and elopes with a member of the act.

A devastated Rose has to turn her attention to developing the shy Louise as a star. However, with the vaudeville scene collapsing and Rose now being in charge of a distinctly second-rate act, Herbie is grateful to book a two-week gig at a burlesque theatre. With all the dreams of stardom seemingly shattered, Louise finally gets her name in lights as chance intervenes to give her a helping hand in the most unlikely of fashions.

Rose is a monster of a mother. She is ruthless in her dealings with theatre owners and puts the careers of her daughters above anything else. Her attitude causes her anguish throughout as June and the rest of her act depart and even Herbie breaks off their relationship on the eve of their wedding as he realises that he will always come second to Rose’s ambitions. The final estrangement is that of Louise as her career blossoms.

The audience is given the chance to sympathise with the mother. Abandoned by her own mother and only tolerated by her father, her marriages have ended in failure and she is determined that she will not desert her own children. Unfortunately, her attitude smothers their individuality and she is left a bereft figure by the end. There is a glimmer of hope for her though as the action is completed with a touching reconciliation.

There are no superlatives good enough to praise Joanna Riding’s performance as Mama Rose. She brought her Olivier award-winning A game to Buxton with great acting and comic timing but above all a magnificent voice. Her bravura rendition of Rose’s Turn was very deservedly greeted by prolonged applause and whoops of delight. A performance worthy of the entrance money in itself.

Monique Young shows her acting talents and her fine voice as she develops from the shy young Louise to emerge from the shadow of a domineering mother to a star in her own right.

David Leonard has a great chemistry with Riding as nice man Herbie – a role in which his experience of musical theatre is brought to the fore while Lisa Dent puts in a great performance as a frustrated June.

Tiffany Graves, Rebecca Lisewski and Aiesha Pease are involved in a highly entertaining scene as burlesque artistes Tessie, Mazeppa and Electra as they teach Louise the tricks of the trade and Megan-Hollie Robertson shows excellent comedic talent as Agnes.

Backed by an excellent ensemble this production sizzles with pzazz throughout and special mention must be given to the juvenile actors who portrayed the characters in their youth. Sienna May shone through a cast of charming talent as Baby June. There was a clutch of deservedly proud parents in the audience who hopefully will not fall into Rose’s ways!!

With a score containing such classics as Small World, Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Together, Wherever We Go and delightful dance routines, it would be difficult not to make this production a success. However, Director Paul Kerryson, Choreographer David Needham and Set Designer Phil R Daniels made the evening a wonderful experience. The orchestra under the direction of Ben Atkinson was excellent throughout and drew applause for a lively overture that was a fitting prelude to the fun to follow.

At three hours including interval, Gypsy is one of the longer productions. However, this is 180 minutes of magical musical theatre. Continuing until July 24th it is an unmissable jewel in Buxton’s crown.