Gypsy review – Sondheim staged with surprising tenderness


Gypsy has been described as the King Lear of musical theatre and the role of Rose is certainly a humdinger. Most of the time, this mother of all showbiz mothers is likable only in fleeting flashes. Ria Jones’s Rose is different. When Rose watches her daughters perform there’s a soft smile on her face, as she mouths along to every word of the act. She’s likable even at her most manic. That makes for a surprisingly tender Gypsy, although Jo Davies’ warm-hearted production lacks the dark heat needed to make the musical blaze.

The songs that soar in Jule Styne’s score are probably not the ones you’ve heard of. The strident numbers such as Some People, fuelled by years of pent-up frustration, slightly race away from Jones. But the gentler songs, spiced up by Stephen Sondheim’s glinting lyrics, are a joy. Sometimes the relationship between Rose and long-suffering manager, Herbie (Dale Rapley), can feel like a sidenote. Here, it’s the highlight. Their first love duet, Small World, is downright charming; and when Rose sings You’ll Never Get Away from Me it doesn’t sound like a threat. It sounds like love.



Downright charming … Melissa James as Louise. Photograph: Johan Persson

But this is a Sondheim musical, with a book from the always-acerbic Arthur Laurents, so it isn’t all sweetness and light. This is a show about performance, in all its chaotic glory, and it’s that aspect that Davies’ production revels in. Framed by Colin Grenfell’s sumptuous lighting, the show is a constant whirl of twirling legs, sequinned chests (Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes are dazzling) and cheeky child performers.

It’s a lot of fun, especially when Rose and her daughters wind up at a burlesque club where the strip artists greet them with one hell of a show (You’ve Got to Have a Gimmick). But there’s rarely a nod to the seedier side of things. When Louise (Melissa James) performs her striptease act for the first time with stunning costumes and twirling acrobatics, it feels like a celebration. And when Rose summons her now-infamous daughter with just a click of the fingers, Louise affectionately rolls her eyes. Sweet, yes. But where’s the thorn in that Rose?

At the Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester, until 25 January.



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