“What did you do it all for Mama?”
Gypsy is one of those shows that I’ve heard much about, it is extremely highly regarded in the US, but have had little real contact with. Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Tyne Daly have taken on the iconic role of Mama Rose in recent years with very mixed results, but it is many years since anyone tried to bring it to the UK. Director Paul Kerryson has taken on the challenge though at the Curve in Leicester, with British/Australian chanteuse Caroline O’Connor in the lead role and so I took my first ever trip to Leicester to see what all the fuss was about.
The story takes its inspiration from the memoirs of burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee which details the remorseless drive of her pushy stage mother from hell Mama Rose as she lived out her own dreams of being a performer by putting her two daughters onto the stage in a touring vaudeville act. Her relentless drive comes at great cost though, alienating one daughter who runs off, pushing the other into becoming a stripper and losing the man who has stood by her for so long.
Arthur Laurents’ book sketches this epic decline beautifully: Mama’s monstrousness is compellingly drawn but O’Connor invests just enough humanity into this woman dealing with her own (unresolved) mother issues to make her more than a simple caricature. Rose’s Turn has to be one of the best ways to end a show ever and it is jaw-droppingly good – the kind of performance that makes you think this production really could fill a West End house were it to maybe transfer (but only to a mid-sized venue please). Her voice is huge, her gestures grand, this ought to be a genuine star-making performance.
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (whose very face makes me feel sorry for her for the whole Flashdance thing for some reason) is strong as Louise, the daughter left on the sidelines until she’s thrust into the limelight of the burlesque world when she finally comes into her own; and Daisy Maywood’s horribly infantilised Dainty June was excellently played. David Fleeshman (father of…) exudes compassion as Herbie, the man who you think will stick around through anything and the company generally really impressed me, especially the three ‘Gimmick-y’ ladies and the gorgeous dancing of Jason Winter’s Tulsa.
Jule Styne’s music with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim has thrown up gems which will be familiar to many a cabaret-goer – ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’, ‘Some People’, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ – and Michael Haslam’s musical direction works well in this space. I wasn’t too sure about the flying billboards, they’re a bit too slow-moving and clunky but they did serve a purpose. And in the end, there is little to distract from what is a sensational central performance from Caroline O’Connor which makes the trip to Leicester most definitely worthwhile and sees the three hours just fly by.