Updated: Jun 3
Review by Sam Waite
Gypsy: A Musical Fable, a collaboration between Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, premiered in 1959 and has since been revived in New York and London numerous times. Inspired by the memoirs of burlesque icon Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy follows the titular performer and her mother, Rose Hovick, who tried against dwindling odds to push her to stardom on the vaudeville circuit.
A real, old-fashioned musical, Gypsy opens with a full overture, and director/choreographer Joseph Pitcher turns this into a sequence not unlike the dream ballets of earlier shows. Young Louise (the future Gypsy Rose Lee) appears on stage through a trapdoor, appearing to rise out of one of the suitcases she was made to haul around the United States – from there, the cast give brief performances as both the small vaudeville troupe Rose will pull together, and the raunchy striptease acts of the burlesque house. As they arrange set pieces and depart the stage, we arrive on the opening scene, of yet another audition for Louise and her sister Baby June.
Grounded in timeless subject matters of the pursuit of fame and parents living vicariously through their children, the work still holds up more than 60 years on. In this new production, Joseph Pitcher brings a level of immersion to The Mill at Sonning – after a delicious meal, included in the ticket price, the audience settle themselves into the revamped auditorium and soon find themselves in the very theatres Rose parades her children through to secure them new bookings. Combining his skills as director and choreographer, Pitcher showcases his cast’s myriad of abilities while also demonstrating his own remarkable command of movement and physical placement, providing fun, deceptively simple dance routines.
Many will recognise the traditional entrance of Mama Rose, charging through the aisles bellowing, “Sing out Louise!” but here this is just one of many moments where the aisles and even the back of the auditorium are used for the performance. This helps to draw the audience into the world of Gypsy without becoming overwhelming – Pitcher’s deliberate and thought-out movement of his cast and the clear flow of Jason Denvir’s sets make it clear what rooms a particular character is exiting towards. Once Rose and eldest daughter Louise find themselves backstage at a burlesque house, the continuity of movement makes it clear where walls are to be imagined and when characters ought to be able to hear (or not hear) one another’s conversations.
Immediately this production achieves great things visually – Jason Denvir’s set will usually contain some mention of their location if you allow your eyes to explore, and the movement of setpieces on and off stage is often so seamless, or the eye so diverted you almost miss it happening at all. Combined with Nic Farman’s lighting, which is at times so subtle in change as to go almost unnoticed, and at others almost blinding (deliberately so) as a spotlight overwhelms a character and lights around the stage light up for a show-stopping finale, the sets immerse us in a world of constant movement and an endless parade of stages and dressing rooms.
Natalie Titchener’s costumes are not only well-made but help us to learn about these characters – younger sister June is given well-constructed but gaudy babydoll dresses and a tightly curled blonde wig, while Louise receives a much plainer suit, and her choppy bob had me assuming a backstory in which Rose shears the poor girl’s hair herself so all their money can go to “the talent” of their act. Later in the show, a series of ingenious striptease outfits show the strength and ingenuity of Titchener’s work and make for excellent sight gags.
A cast of 13 cover the show's myriad roles, with several actors rotating between appearances as chorus members, theatre managers, strippers, and even family members. A handful of this talented group also perform as members of the band, providing accompaniment both onstage and off. Even June, the younger and ostensibly more talented of the Hovick sisters (whose real-life counterpart would become Hollywood and Broadway’s June Havoc), makes appearances in dance ensembles once her main arc is complete.
In a fascinating, deeply moving directorial choice, Young Louise is clearly visible on stage in many critical moments in her older counterpart’s life. When an adult Louise, in “Little Lamb”, wonders aloud, “how old I am,” her eyes follow her young self as if to acknowledge what a disconnect she feels from her stated age. This inclusion is perhaps strongest in the famed “I’m a pretty girl” scene – the dialogue is now shared, the initial realisation coming from the young girl, and the final statement from a fully formed woman.
As June, who has turned 9 more times than she can count, Marina Tavolieri initially brings the girlish, squealing energy the role demands – so chirping and high in pitch are her squeaks of delight that you get the sense she’s even irritating herself. As the years go by and the truth sets in, scenes where June isn’t putting on a show allow for a remarkable moment of transformation from Tavolieri. Her voice drops only somewhat, but the tiredness and genuine fury she plays the role with make it feel as though it’s lowered by two full octaves.
Of course, a production of Gypsy is only as good as its Rose. Originated by Ethel Merman and written for her powerful, brassy belt, the role has since been played by the likes of Patti Lupone, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Imelda Staunton. This time around, the mantle has been passed to Rebecca Thornhill, who brings a tenderness and clear, youthful delight at the idea of stardom and success that the harsher, more anguished edges of the characterisation feel like the blunt, wounded moments they ought to. Rest assured, she has the belt needed for “Rose’s Turn” and “Some People”, but she doesn’t sacrifice emotional depth for power. Softness creeps into both her voice and mannerisms, but she never loses the sense of being a dominating force, if not always in control, then always prepare to wrestle it back.
The whole cast are exceptional, with Daniel Crowder bringing a real sense of continual questioning and doubt to Rose’s love interest Herbie, making their ill-fated romance entirely believable with his palpable devotion to her. A trio of strippers, here played by Susannah Van Den Berg, Natalie Windsor, and the hysterical Laura Tryer, make an indelible mark and deliver a rousing “Gotta Get a Gimmick” in-between Tryer’s (in particular) work as a scene stealer and a wonderful comedienne.
Amidst this seemingly endless parade of talent and charisma, Evelyn Hoskins, in the title role of Gypsy Rose Lee. As Louise, she is fragile, almost on the verge of breaking much of the time and carries herself in a way that makes her mother’s claims that she is still ten years old well into her teens that much more believable. The challenge of the Louise/Gypsy role, of course, comes in the shape of her own big number, the extended striptease “Let Me Entertain You.” Hoskins is at first frozen in place, so filled with visible terror that it almost becomes uncomfortable to watch her, but all at once she seems to age a decade – this is when the Gypsy persona takes hold, and her growing confidence and increasingly robust vocals bring the song to a stirring conclusion. Her final scenes, in which Gypsy no longer needs Louise’s mother to coddle her, carry tremendous power with the chameleonic transformation.
Somehow bold and traditional in equal measure, Joseph Pitcher’s semi-immersive, finely-tuned Gypsy is a roaring success and a testament to the sheer strength of this long-standing Broadway and West End favourite. Elevated by a willingness to explore new layers of these classic roles and by the stellar work of its cast, particularly Hoskins and Thornhill, this is a crowd-pleasing and commanding production which I can only hope garners a continuation elsewhere.
Gypsy plays at The Mill at Sonning until July 15th.
For tickets and information, visit https://millatsonning.com/shows/gypsy/
Photos by Andreas Lambis