The stage at the Mill at Sonning is transformed into a cosy vaudeville theatre with Jospeph Pitcher’s Gypsy. With a book by Arthur Luarents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this musical adds a grittiness to the glamour of the thing we know as show business.
One of the highlights of the season
Based on the life of the striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy tells the story of Rose’s (Rebecca Thornhill) persistence in transforming her daughters, June (Mia Burton, Marina Tavolieri) and Louise (Aimee Brain, Evelyn Hoskins) into stars with a home-made vaudeville act.
There’s a slight dichotomy between the technical design of this show where on one hand there is a deliberate shabbiness of the backstage area of various venues that are represented throughout and the professionalism and quality of the costumes, despite the characters’ own financial means. As well as creating a realistic backstage setting throughout, Jason Denvir’s set design signposts the different cities that each scene takes place in. They aren’t particularly obvious but it’s a smart design; once you spot them, you can’t believe that you missed the ones before, and makes you pay attention to it beyond the cursory glance to determine where the action is taking place. The extension of the stage creates an intimacy that only exists between actors and an audience, but also turns Gypsy into an extended vaudeville performance rather than just another musical. We become a fly on the wall, seeing behind the scenes into private relationships and moments. The most notable aspects of Natalie Titchener’s costume design are in the vaudeville and Rose’s costumes. The professionalism of the vaudeville costumes say as much about Rose as her own clothing, for it says that despite the slap-dash character of the act, Rose demands and creates a performance as professional as something on Broadway. Whilst generally, in a production such like this one, such a standard is expected, it doesn’t quite take into account the quality that the characters might have been able afford at those moments in the show. For example, June’s Statue of Liberty dress is incredibly stunning and looks like something that we might buy to wear ourselves, but it doesn’t completely match what we know about the characters. Rose's costumes are period appropriate in an extremely fashionable way in a clean-cut way. The lights that run along the edge of the stage add an extra emphasis of showbiz that increases the atmospheric glitz to even big band numbers like Everything’s Coming Up Roses. These particular lights are used effectively and at no point does it feel like Nic Farman’s lighting design overuses them.
The cast of Gypsy match each other’s intensity throughout the show, performing a number of dance numbers with an elegance that is required of classic choreography. No musical number gets lost among the others, even smaller character songs like Charlie Waddell’s All I Need Is The Girl are performed with an effortless smoothness that makes it stand out on its own merit. Hoskins has an incredibly sweet voice and demanour and it is jolting to see her sudden change during the Gypsy Strip Routine: Let Me Entertain You to the point where for a second it seems like there’s a third actress in the role, such is her transformation. It’s interesting that even in a story supposedly about Louise, the musical doesn't seem to be about her for Thornhill completely steals the show. She is a powerhouse; there’s just non-stop motion in her quick-fire wit, comedic timing (where she manages to turn a accidental fall into a deliberate character choice) and sheer strength of her voice. Thornhill turns every moment into a journey, we can see the wordless arc that the character goes through clearly displayed on her entire demeanour. Everything about her performance is big without it overpowering any other aspect of the character and appears completely effortless, as if she's slipping on a second skin.
It is difficult to imagine how a show like Gypsy with such a big personality can fit on a smaller stage, but Pitcher has proved that a small stage only makes everything about the musical bigger. The setting of the Mill at Sonning makes this revival of Gypsy incredibly charming and the high-standard of performance adds an anticipatory note to the journey to Reading. Gypsy is definitely one of the highlights of the season.