Left – Blazey Best. Cover – Laura Bunting. Photos – Phil Erbacher
The musical Gypsy, is a near perfect show, exquisitely crafted by a collection of geniuses of the music theatre genre. A sharply observed, heartfelt book by Arthur Laurents anchors an incredible score by Jule Styne with lyrics by the immortal Stephen Sondheim – every bit as inventive, witty and truthful as you’d expect from the master of rhyme. It is an icon, and as director Richard Carroll notes you’d be mad to take it on. But then again – how could you resist.
In this small cast, pared back production, Carroll creates a dark, confronting and unpleasant tale of bitterness and regret, allowing the characters little warmth or redeeming features. The world of vaudeville he creates right from the overture is a hammed up, talentless and pathetic place. Tawdry, outdated and funny for all the wrong reasons. And in truth probably an accurate comment on the fading fortunes of the genre at that time.
The character of Rose is challenging, difficult to pull off, but nevertheless a dream role for many. Like the show itself it’s alumni boast some of the most iconic performers and voices of the stage. Blazey Best delivers a quite abrasive Rose – driven, unyielding and with little warmth. Her vocals are tailored as hard as her characters ambition. It is an interesting and challenging characterisation, but one that is finally quite harrowing to watch. It was hard to understand why Herbie – played with a light gentle touch by Anthony Harkin – stays as long as he does. While that is often true of this storyline, this production seemed to magnify that. Harkin has a lovely soft warm vocal tone, and the two voices – like their characters – struggle to find balance in the duets.
Stylistically Carroll keeps the fourth wall in place through much of the direction, quite unusual for a musical, and this along with Blazey’s somewhat contained downward looking physical choices kept me from seeing much variation of light and shade in the eyes. It wasn’t till Rose's turn that I glimpsed the thwarted hoofer performing out front. In a space as wonderfully intimate as this, it was surprising to be denied many of the inner character journeys by upstage or off-centre blocking and dim lighting.
While the character of Rose is full of flash and passion, the quiet needy character of Louise is in many ways the most challenging of the show. Laura Bunting transformed nicely from boyish to femme fatale but in keeping with the style of the production rarely let us see her characters heart and became every bit her mother’s daughter by the end. I think it will grow into something special through the run, as she navigates the minefield of costume changes and choreography.
Interestingly the show relaxes markedly once it hits the Burlesque theatre in Act 2 and we are allowed to enjoy a little laugh amidst the bleak desperation of these lives. Jane Watt was a delight in many of her well observed and detailed cameos but none more so than here. I was relieved to be allowed to smile.
Despite some very clever solutions along the way, I’m not sure this show actually survives a cut back staging of this nature. The talented and experienced company work hard, delivering some lovely vignettes, but overall it lacked musical punch and the vocals were generally dry and without warmth throughout. Not sure if that’s a choice or sound mixing that has not yet quite found its way, but there was little vocal appeal with which to engage as an audience. The pared back orchestrations evoked the tinny brashness of cheap vaudeville effectively, but by limiting the lush nature of the score in this way also limited the emotional range of the gentler moments.
It is an ambitious undertaking to scale a show as epic as this down to the size of the Hayes and the team are to be applauded for the attempt. Any chance to see a musical with a book as strong as this is rewarding. But don’t expect an easy night of it. This is a hard-edged show that parallels the demise of vaudeville with the demise of a woman’s heart. This rose has many thorns.
Luckiest Productions and One Eyed Man Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co present
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Director Richard Carroll
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co | 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point, NSW
Dates: from 18 May 2018
Bookings: 02 8065 7337 | hayestheatre.com.au