GYPSY (Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (HAODS)
Kenton Theatre, 21 New Street, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2BP
25-28 April 2018
Don't be fooled by the title, this musical is not really about the life of Gypsy Rose Lee (aka Rose Louise Hovick), the American burlesque performer: it's about her mother Rose. Here we see the story of the archetypal show business mother, the possessive mother, the devouring mother. She says she's pushing her children onwards to fame and success for them, but in reality she's doing it for herself (and lying to herself about her motives).
First of all, Momma Rose (Caroline Hopkins) pushes her daughter June (Elanor Mitchell-Luker) as the vaudeville star in the making, but June elopes with Tulsa (Peter L. Phoenix), one of the young men in her mother's troupe of performers. Rose cuts her first daughter out of her life: betrayal deserves no mercy! Next, her second daughter Louise (Katie Healy) becomes the focus of her ambitions, but Rose's efforts for her are no more successful than for June. She has failed her daughters and is on the verge of giving up. When Louise agrees, reluctantly and against her mother's wishes, to become a stripper, and, what's more, becomes very successful at it, her mother's jealousy becomes too much and emotional fireworks result.
There's a common pattern that I'm starting to see with many musicals staged by amateur companies. Their singing and dancing are usually of a high standard, but the spoken scenes are often a bit sluggish by comparison, and that was the case, to start with certainly, with the present production. For me the show really took off in the second scene when Rose sang the number 'Some People'. Caroline Hopkins' soaring, expressive voice made me sit up and think: it's going to be good after all.
In truth, the non-musical scenes got better as we went through, and towards the end of the first act, we started seeing what this obviously talented cast was capable of. The final showdown between the now confident and successful Louise and her jealous, resentful mother was a scene that crackled with the high octane telling of home truths. The acting easily matched the best of the musical performances. Bringing that level of focus and commitment from the actors in from the very start would have elevated the production to the next level.
This is a show with some great musical numbers, and the cast did them justice. I particularly enjoyed 'Mr Goldstone', a great group number that had energy, focus and some great singing and choreography. Top marks also to 'If Momma Was Married', sung by June and Louise – Elanor Mitchell-Luker and Katie Healy really captured the chemistry between the two sisters. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics to 'Small World' brings us the ironic perspective of two people who've been round the block a few times, looking at love without the rose-tinted spectacles, and recognising a need is still there - despite everything. Caroline Hopkins' Rose and Mark Wilkin's Herbie caught the downbeat, world-weary, what-the-heck mood of the number nicely.
One question stuck in my mind after the show. According to Caroline Hopkins' biography in the programme, she's been with HAODS for 22 years, but this is the first leading role she's had. Why has it taken so long? Caroline has a terrifically expressive voice, ranging from warmly maternal to gutsy fighter, and she has stage presence. I hope this won't be the last lead that she's given.
Credit also to Katie Healy for a Louise who starts off mousey and submissive, and ends up finding herself and her self-confidence. A great transformation. Mark Wilkin as Herbie was the easy going fool for love who finally sees in Rose's ruthless ambition the deal-breaker for their impending marriage. Here was Herbie played as a big softie, a nice guy who realised he was too nice for the woman in his life. Elanor Mitchell-Luker's talent as a singer and dancer gave the character of June as her mother's great hope the credibility it needed. It was possible to believe that June really could have been a star, if it hadn't been for her mother!
Finally, one random member of the cast, plucked out the hat, whose several support roles I personally enjoyed was Piers Burnell. He brought us grit, cynicism, the right physicality and (in one case) campness to the various backstage showbiz manager characters he played.
The orchestra pit at the Kenton Theatre is, bizarrely, in the middle of the stage, so well done to all members of the cast for not falling in, especially during dance routines! Well done also to musical director Jonathan Heard and his band, who were in the pit, for giving us a thoroughly vaudeville sound to the show. Congrats also to choreographer Emma Broadway.
I've seen several sets recently that use hinged walls that fold out and in again, all to good effect. We saw the technique in action for Gypsy. Director Phil Couch and co-set designer Steven Allender came up with a quick and tidy way to transition from scene to scene.
Gypsy is a show close to the heart of director Phil Couch and, clearly, inspired by his love of the piece, a lot of work has gone into this production. This is only Phil's second show as a director, and it was an ambitious choice, so extra marks for the higher level of difficulty. In many ways, it's a tricky show to direct. Everyone knows what Louise ends up doing (the famous bit!), but first we have to 'get through' the rest of the story, so to speak, and it's a long first act. That's not to diminish the dramatic importance or entertainment value of the story up to June's departure, but it is an issue for any director. Generally, however, I think HAODS was successful in its efforts and I for one enjoyed my time in the Kenton Theatre. Well done to all.
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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