Review: Gypsy, Royal Exchange Theatre

This adaptation of Gypsy, Sondheim’s infamous musical, follows the story Mama Rose, the ambitious, overbearing matriarch who yearns for her two young daughters to enter showbiz in depression era America. While she pushes all her hopes on June (Melissa James), it is the seemingly talentless Louise (Melissa James) who inadvertently ends up the big star. 

Francis O’Connor’s staging is stunning, evoking the early 20th century glamour of Vaudeville. A revolving stage frame highlights the claustrophobic world of the US amidst the Great Depression, but also the scrutiny and intensity of the road to stardom. Exceptional dance numbers are choreographed to brilliant precision, set against the backdrop of Leo Munby’s band. The music of specific numbers such as ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ is brilliant, and the in-the-round staging of the Royal Exchange (the band itself is part of the audience in the round in the upper gallery) makes the audience feel part of the extravagant and dramatic world of theatre and showbiz.

Mama Rose is played by understudy Rebecca Thornhill for this performance (the role is usually played by Ria Jones), who does a brilliant job of anchoring the chaos around her and bringing heart and understanding to this coveted role. Her relationship with Herbie (Dale Rapley), which is very much a union of opposites, is full of genuine devotion, and her love and desperate ambitions for her daughters is evident from the very beginning. It would be easy to turn her into a caricature of an overbearing mother, but the play instead slowly tracks the humble beginnings of the family, highlighting the poverty during the Depression Era from which they rose. The play offers us a multifaceted, intriguing and complicated Mama Rose; instead of her arrogance and intransigence, we focus on her sacrifices and humanity. We feel sympathy for her and she ultimately becomes endearing by the end of the show. Louise and June are also brilliantly played by actresses Melissa Rowe and Melissa James respectively. Melissa James’ estrangement from Mama Rose is a genuine poignant moment, as is Melissa Rowe’s internal conflict and anxieties around performing burlesque. Their child versions are adorably played, but the play never shies away from pointing out the moral issues lurking beneath the exuberant surface. In this case, it’s the question of Rose’s exploitation, which comes to haunt her as the play progresses

Part of what makes this a stunning production is the fact that this is an ensemble piece featuring a host of brilliant characters with incredible stories, as well as enthralling musical numbers that delight the audience. The number at the Burlesque show ‘You’ve Got to Have a Gimmick’ is a standout moment with sharp lyrics and incredible costumes, accompanied by Colin Grenfell’s exceptional lighting design. It brings home the extravagance and the allure of the stage, as well as the excitement and opportunity of freedom it offers to Louise.

This classic story of the glitz, glamour, and drama of fame is a perfect musical and well worth a visit to the Royal Exchange this holiday season.

Gypsy is playing the Royal Exchange Theatre until 1 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Exchange Theatre website.