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Gypsy
Hayes Theatre, May 22, until June 30
★★★★½

It was hatched at night, about three weeks into rehearsals. Although Stephen Sondheim, to his frustration, had been employed to write only the lyrics, not the music, this night he sat at the piano and mashed up fragments of composer Jule​ Styne's​ existing songs, splicing together the mixed emotions that constituted Rose's ultimate clash with reality and consequent breakdown. Rose's Turn became not just Gypsy's finale, but its masterpiece. In this performance Blazey​ Best chews it up and spits it out, her disintegration like the shattering of a window on to all you have been watching for the past three hours.

Hers is a different Rose: not so much a maternal gargoyle as a human version of a living tree with a hollowed-out trunk. If the missing heartwood was supposed to be Baby June, then older June, and then Louise, all the daughters in the world could never fill a cavity this immense, not even when Louise, as burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, has her name in lights on Broadway.

On fire: Blazey Best as Rose.

Photo: Phil Erbacher

Although Best's Rose is still relentless, she also catches the key motif of Arthur Laurents' book and of Sondheim's lyrics: she is a dreamer – not, in some fey, winsome way, but a deeply disappointed woman whose dreams are expressed through gritted teeth. Indeed Best has perfected the hitherto unknown art of singing through gritted teeth. Even when her intonation sometimes wavers it could almost be intentional; in keeping with a character who is that saddest of all the shades, echoes, misfits and wannabes choking show-business: an amateur who thinks she's a professional.

Besides wanting to be the composer, Sondheim was wary of Gypsy's show-biz scenario. Rose, however, is not just a show-biz mama: she could just as easily be a ruthless tennis mum, a parent who piles on academic pressure until the child explodes, or a parent simply living vicariously through the child.

This is a bristling production of one of the greatest musicals of all, underpinned by a peerless book from Laurents: an entirely credible straight play, from which the songs of Styne​ – his finest – and Sondheim spring about as organically as songs in musicals ever can. Understanding this, director Richard Carroll has ensured the show has a flow that makes its three hours fly by, with any hint of its flagging only lasting a minute or two.

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He has also cast it with precision. Laura Bunting slides through the transitions of Louise – unloved older child; uneasy occupier of the spotlight; all that mama could have hoped for and more; conveyor of the truth that mama has always denied – like a sleek convertible gliding past milestones. Jessica Vickers (Baby June), Anthony Harkin (Herbie​), and Sophie Wright (June) all convince, as does each ensemble member, with Janet Watt excelling as Tessie​ the stripper, and Mark Hill unleashing a gripping dance routine as Tulsa, choreographed by Cameron Mitchell.

The design elements are just as harmonious, with Alicia Clements' simple, largely prop-based settings relying on Trent Suidgeest's​ evocative lighting to define spaces. Even more impressive is musical director Joe Accaria's​ rendering Styne's​ score (originally for orchestra) with a band of four – and no synthesisers!

Through it all Gypsy crackles along on the lyrics of Sondheim, whose work has been accused of lacking heart, just because he eschews dripping sentimentality. Having absorbed the genius of Cole Porter and Oscar Hammerstein​, Sondheim took lyric-writing to another level, continually subverting expectations with his brilliant rhymes. It was worth his while to stay back that night after rehearsal and puzzle out a way to end the show.

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John Shand

John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award

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