Buxton Opera House, Buxton
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Directed by Paul Kerryson
In a joint production between the Buxton International Festival and the Buxton Opera House and for a ridiculously short run of 8 performances only, Gypsy’s caravan has pulled up in the Peak District’s spa town of Buxton. Drawn from the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, Arthur Laurents’ book is meticulously created, much as his West Side Story was an inspired interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Add in a young Stephen Sondheim penning the lyrics to Jule Styne’s magnificent score and the components were all there to create one of the 20th century’s finest musicals.
While Gypsy Rose may have been the stage name adopted by Louise, the younger daughter of Rose, this musical is all about the maniacally matriarchal Rose, with Sondheim and Laurents combining to create perhaps the most deliciously flawed woman in the canon. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, deserted by two husbands and with two young daughters in tow, Rose is determined to offer her girls – and older daughter June in particular – a career amidst the bright lights of showbiz. But this is 1920’s America, the Great Depression is biting and vaudeville is dying. The world is dog eat dog and Rose is eating dogfood so that her kids may at least enjoy cold leftovers. Is she a self-sacrificial stage-mum? Possibly. But halfway through the first act, as Louise on her birthday sings the solo number Little Lamb, revealing to the audience that as an evidently teenage girl she does not know her own age, we get a glimpse into the infernal cauldron of emotions that define her damaged mother.
Luxury casting sees Joanna Riding play Rose. There is little glamour to the role, rather the interpretation of a middle-age woman railing against the demons of desertion via song after song after song – and each one, in Riding’s interpretation, an absolute banger! From the energy of Some People, straight into the sublimely soft nuances of Small World, Riding grasps Rose’s reins, driving her character through life’s challenges and glimpsed opportunities. On stage for most of the show, Riding’s (like Rose’s) energy appears indefatigable with the actress masterfully controlling Rose’s descent into the facing of reality and recognising the impossibility of her own dream just as Louise emerges to discover her own.
Rose famously closes both acts of the show with massive solos. Riding’s take on Everything’s Coming Up Roses blithely sends the audience off for their interval gin and tonics. She ends the show however with the jaw-droppingly frantic Rose’s Turn. It is gripping to watch Riding perform and if Hamlet is famous for subjecting its leading performer to a draining swordfight in the endgame, so too did the creatives of this show make almost unreasonable demands of their leading lady when they wrote this final number and Riding is breath-taking in her portrayal of decline.
Monique Young makes sensitive work of Louise's emergence from overlooked younger sibling to the glamour of burlesque and ultimately international stardom. There is a wry cruel wisdom to Louise’s signature song, Let Me Entertain You. The number is sung initially in the show by the young Baby June as a novelty child-performer in a vaudeville routine. (Credit here to Sienna May as Baby June and also to Lucy McLoughlin as Baby Louise.) By the end of the show however the lyrics are an acknowledgement of the sleazy allure of the striptease, deftly handled by Young. If there is one small criticism of the production it is that director Paul Kerryson could have made more of the young Louise’s unrequited crush on Tulsa (a young man in Rose’s performing troupe).
In another complex supporting role David Leonard is Herbie, the middle-aged, ex-agent turned candy salesman who holds a torch for Rose throughout, until he clearly sees that Rose can truly love no-one beyond herself. Leonard’s work is sensitive and well-voiced.
The second act’s brief comic respite comes from the three worldy-weary strippers that Rose and Louise encounter as burlesque beckons. Tiffany Graves (Tessa Tura), Aleisha Naomi Pease (Electra), and Rebecca Lisewski (Mazeppa) are each wonderful in their modest cameos in You Gotta Get a Gimmick. Hannah Everest puts in a fine turn as Dainty June, with Liam Dean’s footwork (alongside that of Young too, to be fair) in All I Need Is The Girl proving another treat from choreographer David Needham.
Ben Atkinson’s 13-piece orchestra make delicious work of Jule Styne’s compositions. From the opening bars of the Overture – itself one of the finest ever – their playing is lush and lavish. There is equally strong work from Phil R Daniels’ set design and Charles Cusick Smith’s costumes.
Buxton's Gypsy is one of the finest pieces of musical theatre to open in England this year. It is unmissable!
Runs until 24th July
Photo credit: Genevieve Girling