11th to 18th May 2024

Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim | Crescent Theatre | Directed by Kevin Middleton

Musical fable about the ultimate stage mother hits Birmingham in an ambitious production at the Crescent Theatre.

Musicals don’t come much more challenging than this one: spanning a decade from the early 1920s to the early 1930s, ‘Gypsy’ must transport audiences to no less than 17 different locations around America and contains a staggering 37 named characters. That’s a lot for an audience, let alone a group of actors. Directed by Kevin Middleton, it’s a brave and ballsy choice and one which, in the most part, pays off thanks to a talented cast and a wonderful live band.

Arthur Laurents’ book-musical may take its title from the famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee but the show is firmly focused on her mother, the formidable Rose. On the surface, it’s about the world of showbusiness in the roaring twenties, charting the decline of vaudeville and the rise of the sexually provocative world of burlesque. But what this show, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is really about is family.

Kimberley Maynard holds the night together as matriarch Rose, a tyrant with a winning smile. She has the voice for the role, belting out ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ at the end of the first act. There’s something admirable in her stubborn single mindedness and determination to make her daughter June a ‘star’ but it soon becomes clear that her own thwarted ambitions are what truly drive her. She is ruthlessly selfish but, as her actions alienate those around her, Maynard brings out the pity in her character too. I remain torn about Mamma Rose, which is how a good production of this show should leave you.

The childhood years are nicely evoked in performances from Annabelle Hodgetts and Eleanor Grimley as Baby June and Baby Louise and there’s a clever theatrical transition to adulthood as strobe lighting casts us forward to the same tired routine years later. Ava Bryan’s baton-twirling June goes from strength to strength as she plucks up the courage to escape from her domineering mother and Joanne Brookes is thoroughly convincing as Louise, the overlooked older sister who transforms from shy introvert to confident stripper ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’. A moment of sisterly connection is nicely captured in their performance of ‘If Momma Was Married’.

Paul Forrest is an avuncular Herbie, Rose’s agent and long-term fiancé, and Bev Haynes, Amanda Nickless and Michaela Redican are wonderful as a trio of ageing strippers long past their primes. Their performance of ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ is the comic highlight of the night. It’s an ensemble piece and the large cast bring to life a whole host of other characters. The Crescent’s large main stage feels a little empty at times, particularly in the first half, but it lifts after the interval. James Booth’s various set designs work well but the many changes, although necessary to the plot, can slow the action.

It's a show which lingers long in the memory thanks to a memorable score and Sondheim’s wonderful lyrics. Momma Rose is an iconic character in musical theatre and she continues to fascinate me. A rare chance to see one of the best American musicals.

‘Gypsy’ is playing at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 11th to 18th May 2024.