GYPSY at The Mill at Sonning
“Rebecca Thornhill is quite remarkable as Rose, establishing her personality as the pushy, determined, possessive matriarch”
Billed as ‘A Musical Fable’ (although the pedants among us would describe it as a parable), “Gypsy” camouflages its many moral messages in a sheer razzamatazz account of the real-life Gypsy Rose Lee; the highest paid striptease artist of her time. Supposedly born sometime around 1910, the date has always been unclear due to her mother, Rose, constantly re-inventing her daughters’ ages to satisfy her own needs and the fluctuating child labour laws. It is Rose herself who ultimately occupies the central theme of what has been described as one of the ‘greatest American musicals’. Then again, it is hard to go wrong with composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents.
Joseph Pitcher’s production is one of The Mill at Sonning’s boldest projects to date which, it is safe to say, doesn’t put a foot wrong either. From the outset we are thrust into the precarious, decadent and exciting Vaudeville world of the 1920s. The overture – worthy of a night out in itself – spills onto and beyond the stage, musicians mingling with cast and audience, characters appearing from suitcases, and a colourful hint of the kaleidoscopic range of Natalie Titchener’s outstanding costumes.
The show displays the contrasting atmospheres of the world depicted. The highs, the lows, the glamour and the shabbiness. Sisters Louise and June are growing up in this world under the formidable shadow of Rose. The ultimate ‘showbusiness mother’, she pushes her daughters into the spotlight and into her own failed dreams with disastrous effects. The more vivacious June is pushed away, while the shy Louise longs for a normal life, eventually eclipsing her mother. Ultimately, she finds her own success in the world she sought to escape, transforming into ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’. Although it is her memoirs that inform the story, it is the mother’s voice that tells it and steals the show.
Rebecca Thornhill is quite remarkable as Rose, establishing her personality as the pushy, determined, possessive matriarch. But far from grotesque. She does monstrous things but is not a monster, and Thornhill perfectly understands that dichotomy. The comedic twinkle is matched by a sincere vulnerability that pulls the character away from cartoon brashness and, amazingly, we end up really rooting for her. If “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is a showstopping climax to the first act, just wait for her rendition of “Rosie’s Turn” in Act Two.
Evelyn Hoskins, as Louise, wears the timid awkwardness like a mantle to protect herself. When forced to shed this (and, of course, more) her wide eyed abidance is quite moving, tipped by a heart-rending moment when she gazes back at her younger self. The transformation is complete, and uplifting, as she picks up the familiar motif number “Let Me Entertain You”. It’s a fascinating journey. Lost on the way, thanks to the antics of Rose, are sister June (an impressive Marina Tavolieri) and Daniel Crowder’s big-hearted agent Herbie. Crowder skilfully steps through the eggshells Rose has laid, dispelling humour and joy and ultimately heartbreak as the armour of his illusions are shattered.
This fine company brings out the best of Styne’s score and Sondheim’s inimitable lyrics, with choreography and production values to equal any West End or Broadway revival. It is a story of contradictions and contrasts. There is a darkness that is lightened by the witty libretto and sumptuous score, and a hardness that is softened by emotionally charged performances and the slick staging. There are lessons to be learned from the ‘fable’, but it never slips into platitude.
Rose tells her daughters to “leave them begging for more – then don’t give it to them”. This production certainly leaves us wanting more, but gives it to us too. In bucketloads. “Let Me Entertain You” it proclaims. Just try stopping them! A stylish, superbly crafted show that is also steeped in sympathy for the main characters. Since its original Broadway production in 1959, producers have toyed with the ending, often leaving it open as to whether there is reconciliation. This one? Well – just go and find out for yourself.
Reviewed on 1st June 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Andreas Lambis
Previously reviewed at this venue: