Why revive a decades-old piece of musical theatre in 2018?
It’s a question I, a sucker for a show tune, think about a lot. It’s a question some producers don’t ask enough. I’ve narrowed it down to two good reasons. Three if you count profit, obviously, but let’s put that ugliness aside. Four based on the merits of the score, but that’s only a reason to put on a concert, not a piece of dramatic theatre. Let’s stick to the artistic two for the sake of the argument.
Firstly, the story has to resonate. It has to have something to say about the world order and human condition here and now.
You can probably make a case for Gypsy, the 1959 musical lovers’ musical, with its celebrated score by Jule Styne, perfectly rhymed lyrics by young up-and-comer Stephen Sondheim (whatever happened to him?) and game-changing book by Arthur Laurents, at the vanguard of naturalistic drama on the musical stage in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 2018 there are reality shows full of monstrous stage moms like Rose, who misdirect starry dreams towards their reluctant kids. And those TV talent quests have gone some way to reviving the sort of vaudevillian entertainment that Gypsy celebrates – precocious kids performing a variety of inflated talents, dangerously unprepared for the harsh judgement of people who aren’t related to them.
Still, a ‘50s retelling of an early-century tale – the real-life story of Gypsy Rose Lee, driven to burlesque stardom by her relentlessly spotlight-stealing mother – is hardly cutting-edge contemporary theatre that demands to be made. It gets a pass mark only on that criteria.
And the second reason to revive a work like Gypsy? To showcase a big ol’ star, of course. And this musical is the biggest, bawdiest showcase of them all. Mama Rose is the sort of Difficult Woman actresses dream of. But it demands a (vocal) belt the size of a heavyweight champion’s. Rose’s Turn, a diva summit of a song, asks an actress to lift the roof with her voice and break every heart in the audience with the dawning, desperate realisation of a dream and two daughters slipping away.
Those that have make a murderers’ row of theatre royalty: Ethel Merman (the original), Rosalind Russell (the film), Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler (the other film), Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone (most recently on Broadway), Caroline O’Connor (most recently in Australia) and Imelda Staunton (most recently on the West End, which you can watch online).
So bloody good luck taking it on. As Rose cruelly taunts: you either got it, or you ‘aint. Blazey Best, a jobbing actress of distinction, has … some of it. But in Richard Carroll’s prosaic Hayes Theatre production, what she doesn’t have – namely, a voice as big as the part – stands out sorely.
Best isn’t afraid to lean into the cruelty of Rose, who emotionally punishes her kids and her jilted lover at every turn. Few actresses could do it as well. But her delivery is strangely affected, perhaps to mask a voice that just isn’t muscular enough in the big musical moments. It isn’t her first singing part; ensemble roles in Australian musicals Miracle City and Only Heaven Knows suggested she could carry a show. And perhaps in any other show she could.
Carroll built this production around Best. His other choices range from bold (a delightful casting call over the overture) to baffling (members of the band randomly appear in one hotel room scene). Attempts to scale down the score diminish it significantly; new arrangements by musical director Joe Accaria for his sextet are often unflattering. And the design (Alicia Clements) is a blur of opening and closing curtains and endless costume changes without a unifying aesthetic.
It creaks like old musicals tend to do, some of which can be oiled over the run, much of which is down to a lack of imagination on Carroll’s part. Which, given how many years the musicals mega-fan says he’s been thinking about directing a production, and the almost complete success of his last Hayes show Calamity Jane, is a real bummer.
He gets a better return out of the rest of the cast, led by Laura Bunting as the unfavourite daughter and Anthony Harkin as the put-upon partner. They’re both OK but don’t elevate the parts to any great height. Mark Hill (a genuine triple threat as Tulsa), Rob Johnson, Matthew Predney, Jessica Vickers, Jane Watt and Sophie Wright complete the cast.
The success of the cramped Hayes space has been in original work, chamber-sized American work and/or more radical reinvention of old material. Gypsy is an altogether different proposition, an unbending classic that demands the cavalier conviction of a Mama Rose. Best, Carroll and his team bite off more than they can chew.
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Main image: Blazey Best as Mama Rose. Photos courtesy of Hayes Theatre.