There’s one thing guaranteed to strike fear into the hardiest of theatre workers. Forget first night nerves, harsh reviews and the fear of the ‘Scottish play’ – the stage mother will bring most people out in a cold sweat. Anyone watching Mamma Rose will soon understand why, a chilling determination to ensure their child shines in the spotlight, regardless of the cost.
Rose has a dream, a mantra almost as strong and rallying as that of Martin Luther King. She won’t rest until her youngest daughter, June, hits the big time on the Vaudeville circuit as a child star. The small facts that her daughter has be ‘nine, going on ten’ for a number of years and that Vaudeville itself is dying is something she refuses to countenance. When June flees her mother’s control, sister Louise comes in for grooming but a twist of fate sees Louise’s career rising to a height even Rose couldn’t foresee, even if it’s not a sector of the industry she approves of.
Inspired by the memoirs of legendry Burlesque stripper ‘Gypsy’ Rose Lee, Arthur Laurents, Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s musical has become a rarely performed classic. Perhaps because of its relation to the US stage, it’s been more frequently staged in America than in the UK but Paul Kerryson’s loving staging at Leicester’s Curve Theatre is a welcome return to the English stage.
Based in historical reality, there is little you can do to update this show to a modern audience but, in fairness, it doesn’t need it. Though firmly set in 1930s America, the themes of pressure to succeed, the lure of celebrity, parental expectations and stepping out of your parent’s shadow remain as relevant today as ever.
Kerryson’s direction focuses very much on the relationship between Rose and her daughters and sometimes, therefore, unwittingly highlights some of the failings of Laurent’s book. Herbie, Rose’s long suffering boyfriend is thinly drawn (though played with conviction by David Fleeshman) while June’s escape from her mother’s clutches is barely a couple of throwaway lines. Overall these are minor points but one can’t help but wonder what could have been.
There are fine performances from Daisy Maywood as June and Victoria Hamilton-Barrit as Louise. Hamilton-Barrit’s transformation from shy second fiddle to leading lady is a remarkable transformation. There is also outstanding work from Lucinda Shaw as Mazeppa, the trumpet-toting stripper, sung with full on gusto.
Of course Gypsy is perhaps the incorrect title of this show, with the spotlight falling squarely on the formidable Mamma Rose. Caroline O’Connor’s performance more than meets expectation. Channelling just enough spirit of original star Ethel Merman, O’Connor delves deep into the part and drags out every inch of emotion and then punches them out over the footlights. A larger than life character this is a larger than life performance to match. A vocal powerhouse, O’Connor also manages to reveal just enough of Rose’s vulnerability, showing just how much she has sacrificed in the name of the, sometimes misguided, dreams for her daughters.
Kerryson’s production doesn’t quite hit every spot but it’s darn close. Scene transitions sometimes seem slow, despite Sara Perks’ fluid flying advertising hording set and there is a missed opportunity with an empty stage overture but they are minor quibbles that can easily be fixed. Gypsy has been something of a neglected gem and it’s wonderful to welcome her back into the spotlight.