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Theatre review - Gypsy, Royal Exchange, Manchester

PUBLISHED: 14:19 06 December 2019

Ria Jones as Momma Rose in Gypsy. Picture: Johan Persson

Ria Jones as Momma Rose in Gypsy. Picture: Johan Persson

Archant

After success with Sweet Charity, The Producers and West Side Story comes the show whose anthem, Let Me Entertain You, never does anything less . . .

Melissa James as Louise in Gypsy. Picture: Johan PerssonMelissa James as Louise in Gypsy. Picture: Johan Persson

It's the musical fable wrapped around the 50s memoir of Louise Hovick, who became striptease sensation Gypsy Rose Lee. As such there are dark undercurrents that may sit uneasily with some modern sentiments.

But Gypsy has to be judged by its period setting, the between-the-wars time of poverty and uncertainty, when vaudeville theatre was being usurped by burlesque.

Nevertheless the comedy here comes naturally - Arthur Laurents' book has some zinging one-liners, Stephen Sondheim times the rhythm of his lyrics with 'em ,and Jules Styne's music borrows from the style of the Jazz Age.

It's a show designed for end stage theatres but Francis O'Connor's design gets round that, literally, with a revolving proscenium arch that becomes a whirling platform at the moment of Louise's burlesque baptism.

As a youngster she has been disregarded by her Queen Lear of a mother, more determined to make a child star of younger sister June - until mum's naked ambition becomes just that.

The mix of dark drama and light comedy, with song and dance, demands meticulous casting, never mind the huge backstage team evident from the programme. West End star Ria Jones gives us a fully-fleshed Momma Rose, besides one of those classic Ethel Merman-style warbling voices; while Melissa James conveys the quiet grace of unrealised beauty, to be the needy child turned show star.

Director Jo Davies's experience with opera is evident throughout. She conjures star-making performances by everyone from the child performers, whose over-rehearsed sequences steal the scenes in the first act; via Louis Gaunt's ballet cameo as Tulsa; to a show-stopping trio of strippers in the second act.

Their interpretation of You Gotta Get A Gimmick, climaxes with a whole new definition of bump and grind. Just one more thing to enjoy in a show that sparkles and fizzes through to January 25.

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