Æ Musical Review – Gypsy

February 16, 2011 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆

Church Hill Theatre
By Thom Dibdin

It is easy to see why Gypsy has been described as one of the greatest American musicals as Tempo’s production hits its stride and starts cruising through the numbers.

It’s not that the songs make a huge individual impact, although there are plenty that have endured outside the show,  rather it is the way that they flow into one another as they tell the ultimate in pushy stage-mother stories.

Norma Kinnear as pushy stage mother: Rose. Photo credit: Darren and Donald Tainsh

The headline event might be the story of Gypsy Rose Lee (Alexa Brown), the burlesque stripper and actress born in 1911 as Louise Hovick, but it is on her background that the musical focusses. And her mother, Rose Hovick (Norma Kinnear), is the dominating force in that.

So it is that the vaudeville act which Rose forced her two daughters into provides the continuity. While the plot is provided by Rose’s creation of the act and her increasingly desperate attempts to keep it touring while vaudeville, as a genre, was falling in popularity.

Norma Kinnear is a strong Rose. She has the petulant domineering attitude down pat, bulldozing past any director, hotel owner, theatre manager or producer. She always knows best but not when to stop – even when talking to those at the very top of the tree.

There is more to Rose as a character than single-mindedness, however. And Kinnear never quite gets beyond the brash to achieve the breadth available to her. Although she has a great partner to bounce off, in the whimsical Donald Budge as Herbie, the failed agent who she takes up with but never quite manages to marry as he tags along on the tour.

Alexa Brown as Gypsy Rose Lee Photo credit: Darren and Donald Tainsh

As the daughters, Alexa Brown with Mairi Beaver as her more talented younger sister June, have less to work with, but both succeed in creating characters for themselves.

Mairi Beaver is great to watch as the young June. Her child-star is effortless, producing the faux New York stage tones of the Annie-style poppet with such conviction that when June and Louise get to speak in their own voices, not their stage voices, her more gentle tone comes as something of a shock.

She gets all the big numbers, mostly based around Let Me Entertain You, the troupe’s signature song. She could, however, afford to let the character grow a bit more – and there is certainly room for her to be more knowing in the scenes leading up to her departure from the troupe.

Louise is very much the silent older child who follows along with what she is told to do. Even when she knows how bad she is at doing so. Brown gets all this easily, and brings it out brilliantly in her first big song, the wistful Little Lamb.

If director Gabrielle Pavone has got the straight musical element of the show spot on, she does take a long time getting there. An opening tableaux is orphaned from the rest of the production by an overlong overture, accompanied by old cinema clips of Gypsy Rose Lee shown on not quite big-enough flat screen televisions on either side of the stage.

The early scenes with Melissa Laurie and Millie Cook playing Baby Louise and Baby June (they alternate shows with Megan Cash and Ceilidh Elliott) are strongly played, but they linger. While the strobe-lit move into the older cast is a great idea that is poorly executed.

Indeed there are strange little lapses in attention to detail throughout the show. Not least the incongruously late-20th century leisure apparel of Darren Coutts as a stage hand in the opening scene – while June and Louise are auditioning for Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show in Seattle circa 1917.

The big lapse, however, is in not paying enough attention to the choreography of the burlesque numbers in the second act.

With June having left – she went on to become a successful actress in her own right – the act has evolved into Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes but has been forced into taking a booking at a downmarket burlesque house.

The big burlesque number, You Gotta Have A Gimmick sung by drunken sot Tessie Tura (Jill Cruikshank), dominatrix Mazeppa (Niloo Far Khan) and old but bold Electra (Elaine Clark), is thrown away on cheap comedy.

Alexa Brown allows her voice to grow in stature as she reprises Let Me Entertain You for the striptease sequence where Louise evolves into Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s all very discreetly done – she takes Rose’s advice to promise everything and reveal nothing – and each individual segment is excellent, but the montage is too clunky as a whole.

There is plenty here to entertain, indeed, it is a thoroughly enjoyable production, but there is just too much in it that needs to be a lot tighter for it to earn the extra star that many elements of it deserve.

Ticket details on the  Tempo Website

Run ends Saturday 19 February 2011.

ENDS

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