|Date||22nd June 2023|
|Venue||Little Theatre, Leicester|
|Type of Production||Musical|
|Director||Keiran Whelan-Newby, Asst John Bale|
|Musical Director||Tim Stokes, Asst Paul Timms|
|Written By||Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim|
Author: Colin Blackler
Little Theatre, Leicester
Regarded as one of the great stage musicals, some think the greatest, Gypsy isn’t often performed by amateur societies. It requires depth and strength of characterisation, an energetic company, talented performers and skilful direction, dramatically and musically.
Having seen Gypsy performed professionally a few times, this was my first amateur production. It’s no exaggeration to describe it as the best I’ve seen.
My wife and I appreciated the welcome and the programmes given to us on arrival. It was nice also to have the chance for brief chats with directors Keiran and John, and with some members of the cast at the end of the evening.
The programme with a photo of the original Gypsy Rose Lee on the cover was colourful and informative with, unusually, no adverts. It was full of well-compiled rehearsal pictures and lots of information about the story, the cast, the characters and the production team.
The 1959 American musical Gypsy is the story of Gypsy Rose Lee’s rise to fame, based on the memoirs of that real-life striptease artist. But the real focus of the show is her mother, also Rose, and her tireless efforts to find fame for her family on the Vaudeville stage. In the course of her story, we see the ambition, passion, frustration and ultimate desperation of the pushy ‘stage mother’.
For any group this show would be a huge challenge. In this production, KW Productions rose to it admirably. Director/Producer Keiran Whelan-Newby and Assistant Director John Bale pulled off as breathtaking a production of Gypsy as you’re likely to see.
The staging & orchestration
Act One, from curtain up, was a non-stop ninety minutes of energy and activity. Rose’s daughters and the song & dance boys in their touring party were introduced, first as children, later (after a clever strobe-lit transition) as older ‘children’, as ‘Mama Rose’ took the family around America with their tired Vaudeville act, struggling to find fame. Early in the story, Rose meets candy salesman Herbie who becomes the act’s agent and, for most of the show, the latest love of Rose’s life.
Act Two is a contrast. Dramatic, tense, emotional and, when sensitively directed and played, enthralling. Here the enthrallment was total, the audience sharing the tension and the emotional charge.
It’s not unusual to see cast members moving furniture and props on and off stage. Usually as unobtrusively as possible and often in semi-darkness. Here the scene-shifting was part of the action. We were meant to see its dramatic effect. None more so than the striking of Louise’s dressing room in Act Two, where almost the whole cast made a dramatic entrance and ‘froze’, solely for the purpose of clearing the stage. Very slick.
Which takes us to the important choreography. Of course it helps to have excellent dancers. A choreographer’s dream. But they still need well-constructed dances and inspired direction to display their skills; under the experienced eye of choreographer Caroline Walsh, they were given this in abundance.
Musically, Gypsy is full of well-known and much-loved songs and tunes. It’s a big musical needing big band support. Instead of a live band, the team decided to use professional performance tracks, expertly controlled by MDs Tim Stokes and Paul Timms. It worked brilliantly. The ‘big band’ music was there, cleverly synchronised and consistently supporting but never overpowering the vocalists, while the on-stage piano gave an authenticity to some of the more informal and intimate scenes.
Sets were simple but effective, allowing best use of the stage. It’s unusual for a review to single out a single part of a set, but the use of the moveable door units, not just for entrances and exits, but also as an integral element in a song and movement number, was inspired. Congratulations to Simon Dickens and team for stage management that helped the smooth flow of the show.
The show opens with the vaudeville act, performed by the ‘young’ version of the main players. The quality of this opening was a taster of what followed. All the young performers should be proud of their performances. In particular Ella Brown, as Baby Louise, convincingly portrayed the embarrassed performer who we were later to meet in the older version. And Ava-Lily Creed was amazing as Baby June. With a permanent ear-to-ear smile, she sang, danced and acted the part in a way that was an entertainment in itself. Certainly a young performer with a great future.
Gypsy is the story of the obsessive mother who won’t let her girls grow up. The show is about her. She is the show. For Gypsy to succeed, Rose has to be good. Debbie Longley-Brown wasn’t just good. She was phenomenal. From her first entrance to her mesmerising song Rose’s Turn, which effectively closes the show, she captivated the audience and inhabited the character through all its emotional and relationship changes. A remarkable performance.
Every member of the cast contributed to the excellent production. There were lovely cameos and some multi-roles from experienced performers including David Lovell, Andy Longley-Brown, and Karen Gordon. Karen, together with Liz Kavanagh Knott and Victoria Price were the ageing strippers who performed the outrageously entertaining trio You Gotta Get a Gimmick. Strong supporting roles were also performed by Katherine Ardley, Kerry Smith, Lyd Rushton and Georgina Hall.
The three ‘boys’ in Rose’s touring vaudeville company, Tulsa, L.A., and Yonkers, played by Tim Stokes, Simon Butler and Joe Dickinson, gave strong vocal support and contributed powerfully to the dramatic and comedic elements of the family’s story. Tim in particular displayed his considerable talent in his excellent Act One number All I Need Is The Girl. A real ‘song & dance’ man.
Besides Rose, the principal characters in the story are Herbie, and Rose’s two daughters June, initially Rose’s protégé and focus of the act, and Louise who reluctantly finds herself leading the act, and eventually achieving international stardom as striptease star Gypsy Rose Lee.
A feature of these four characters is the way their relationships develop. Rose’s and Herbie’s, Herbie’s and June’s, June’s and Rose’s in particular. All sensitively and movingly portrayed.
Experienced Leicester performer Tony Whitmore gave us the perfect Herbie, convincingly supporting and loving Rose despite her obsessive ambitions, until eventually his patience, if not his love, is exhausted. The emotional power of his final scene with Rose was communicated movingly to a tense, hushed audience.
Katie Proctor, as June, conveyed energetically the personality of the starstruck adult playing the bubbly child, full of life on stage, but gradually realising that her performing career was going nowhere. Her Act One performance of If Momma Was Married, with sister Louise, was a delight.
Rose Bale carried the difficult role of Louise with assurance. For most of the show she was the reluctant and awkward stage performer; the ‘family girl’ preferring a settled home life to the endless touring, and uncomfortable with Momma’s string of love partners, Rose’s Louise transforms into the confident woman escaping Mother’s dominance and finding the stardom so long fought for. Her initially gauche attempts at stripping, eventually becoming graceful and classy, were beautifully performed. A brilliant acting, and singing, performance from Rose.
This was a production we would gladly watch again, and again. Well done everyone involved, and thank you.