An uneven performance lacks the courage of its convictions – and this is not a musical for timidity
It’s hardly controversial to say Gypsy is the greatest musical ever written. You can count on one hand the number of musicals that seamlessly meld song and dialogue with such confidence and panache to tell a story so deeply human.
That story is a classic showbiz one: a pushy stage mother, Rose (Blazey Best) goes to extreme lengths to make stars of her two daughters, June (Jessica Vickers and Sophie Wright) and Louise (Laura Bunting), on the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s. It’s a world of backstage dramas, high-pressure auditions and failed dreams. But in this production for Hayes Theatre, director Richard Carroll has attempted to excavate the family drama at its core and push it centre stage, exploring how a mother-daughter relationship reaches breaking point when they’re unable to give each other what they need.
As Arthur Laurents’ book slides towards a disaster you can see coming a mile off, Jule Styne’s brassy music and Stephen Sondheim’s incisive lyrics propel these characters forward while revealing all we need to know about their inner lives.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to be totally swept up in Gypsy’s unique magic in Carroll’s version, for a few reasons. While Carroll has been a fixture in Sydney’s independent musical theatre scene for several years now, he’s still very much in the early stages of his directorial career. The anarchic comedic skills he put to use in Calamity Jane are on clear display here in numbers like ‘Mr Goldstone’ and all the vaudeville performances, and he works well with Best and Bunting to find the resonances in the final few scenes. But he struggles to navigate the space between these emotional highs and lows, and nuance sometimes gives way to soapy shouting.
The handling of the score is also an issue. Musical director Joe Accaria has come up with some clever solutions to reduce the full orchestrations to a small ensemble of five (at times augmented by cast members who are also instrumentalists). It’s frequently scrappy (right from the overture, which has been cleverly staged so you don’t pay too much attention to how underwhelming and messy it sounds), but Accaria resists totally giving into that scrappiness.
And that’s symptomatic of the entire production: the creatives want to reinvent things a bit, but they don’t really have the courage of their convictions. That’s particularly true in ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, which starts with some churchy organ underscoring, underlining dialogue that just doesn’t need it. Its first verse is then played as a waltz, robbing the song of its unstoppable forward motion (it’s literally sung at a train station, if you want a clue as to how the number works), before it clicks back into its traditional rhythms. And although Alicia Clements’ design is very attractive – with gorgeous proscenium arches framing the action – scene and prop changes are way too fiddly for a production trying to strip things back.
Although Carroll says the prospect of seeing Best in the role was one of his main motivators for mounting a production, her casting is a fundamental problem. Best is one of Sydney’s best actors and not a bad singer by any stretch of the imagination, but her unstable musical performance diminishes the dramatic impact of the piece. The lines between singing and speaking, and song and character, should be almost imperceptible in this show – the absolute pinnacle of “book musicals” – but Best’s hesitant vocals put an unwelcome tension into its heart. You don’t need the greatest singer in the world to play Rose – and certainly some of the most famous Roses have not been – but you do need an actor to whom singing feels like the most natural thing in the world. The show simply cannot soar without it.
Other cast members are better fits: Laura Bunting is excellent as Louise, bringing the character’s emergence from her cocoon to life with real verve, and Anthony Harkin makes the most of Rose’s much-abused admirer and would-be husband, Herbie. Jessica Vickers and Sophie Wright are brilliant as the child and adult June, Mark Hill is a suave song and dance man in ‘All I Need is the Girl’ (the best musical arrangement in the show), and Jane Watt is wonderfully funny as the stripper Tessie Tura.
Gypsy is basically bulletproof, and there’s enough shine in parts of this generally lacklustre treatment to pull it across the line and tug at the heartstrings. Carroll eventually manages to fulfil his objective of cracking open Louise and Rose a touch further than other productions might be able to, but when the material is weighed down by this many wrong-footed decisions, it’s a slog to get there.