20th June 2023
Sing out, Louise! The mother of all musicals ‘Gypsy’ is back for this week only, playing at Leicester’s Little Theatre, and being performed by KW Productions. The 1959 classic sees Madame “Mama” Rose Horvick (played here by Debbie Longley-Brown), who tours the Vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s with her two daughters, the shy and timid Louise (played as an adult by Rose Bale), and the extroverted June (Katie Proctor). Rose tries to keep recycling the same old show ideas, refusing to accept that her daughters are becoming young women with lives and dreams of their own. When June runs away with dancing daydreamer Tulsa (Tim Stokes, also the production’s Musical Director), Rose loses the “star” of her act, and becomes desperate to find a way to earn a living for her family. A chance encounter introduces Louise to the eye-opening world of striptease and burlesque, and soon, an icon is born, a transformation which rocks Rose’s world so its core.
‘Gypsy’ is one of those musicals that will outlive us all, pure theatre in its construction and vision, and at 65 years young it remains as engaging and entertaining as it’s ever been. It feels timeless rather than dated, still speaking volumes about ambition, the thirst for adoration and approval, and defying family obligation to live one’s own life. Jule Styne’s iconic score is near faultless, making the heart soar as soon as its overture starts, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics show the composer’s enviable ear for language which would go on to make him one of the most admired lyricists in the world for the duration of his career. Arthur Laurents’ book (based on the 1957 real-life memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee) digs deep into its characters, making them layered and complex, and gives them a journey; it remains ground-breaking for putting a strong woman’s story front and centre, something unheard of in 1959 and that would go on to inspire ‘Sweet Charity’, ‘Mame’, and countless others.
Taking such prolific material must be a nerve-wracking experience, but director Keiran Whelan-Newby has done a fantastic job with this production. His love for the show is apparent from the outset, and soars even without the perks of a professional budget. The intimate Little Theatre space means that the audience focus more on the characters, and is all the more rewarding because of it. Sets are used sparingly but effectively, there is an inventiveness to the use and positioning of props, and all framed with a light-bulb-ringed stage which evokes pure Broadway. Trickier sections such as Louise’s perfecting of her Gypsy act over time are cleverly pulled off with blackouts and quick costume reveals, and whole production feels slick and well-designed, keeping a smooth and steady flow that defies it’s near 3-hour running time. The show flies by, thanks to Whelan’s faithful delivery and impressive performances.
Many of the talented cast take on multiple roles and play them with apparent ease, each having some great standout moments to shine. Special mention must go to Karen Gordon, Liz Kavanagh Knott and Victoria Price, who really throw their all into the memorable Act 2 number “You Gotta Get A Gimmick”, showing great character and bravado, and camping it up a storm. Tony Whitemore provides excellent support as love interest Herbie, and Tim Stokes makes a hugely likeable Tulsa, showing some very suave dance moves in his “All I Need Is The Girl” solo. And as Louise, Rose Bale gives a great sense of journey and development, taking the character from awkward and gangling to seductively owning the room, where she later excels.
Madame Rose has been played by some titans of musical theatre (Lansbury, LuPone, Peters, Staunton, not to mention Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler on film), and Debbie Longley-Brown’s incredible performance here is enough to cause a national shortage of superlatives. She is simply astounding, nailing both the characterisation and the vocals, giving 150% and never taking her foot off the pedal for second, while skilfully showing the vulnerability underneath. It’s possibly the finest non-professional performance this long-time reviewer has ever seen, and deserves awards for her work here. She is a heart-breaking joy to watch, and it’s a performance that will live in the memory for some time.
If you’ve never seen ‘Gypsy’, productions don’t come much better than this one. If you have, get booking and enjoy it again. A rich, nuanced musical full of heart, edge and an incredible leading lady, this one really does come up roses, and is too good to miss.
‘Gypsy’ runs at The Little Theatre, Leicester, until Saturday 24th June 2023.
Performance runtime 3 hours including interval.