Monday, 5 June 2023

REVIEW: Gypsy at the Mill at Sonning

There was a golden age of American musicals after the Second World War when titles like Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), Guys and Dolls (1950), King and I (1951), Paint Your Wagon (1951) and My Fair lady (1956) were first staged but seventy years later the relationship between the male characters and female co-stars can feel dated and uncomfortable while their scores still soar with some of the very best musical theatre tunes. The story of Gypsy (1959) presents a challenge too with the coercive mother, Rose, bullying her daughters into performing in a desperate desire to fulfil her own need for stardom. Producers and Directors need to find a new way to present these fabulous scores to appeal to modern audiences and the Mill at Sonning’s wonderful musical theatre creative team led by Joseph Pitcher has established a track record of doing just that in this unique Berkshire Dinner Theatre. Following the extraordinary success of My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, High Society and Singing in the Rain in recent years they now deliver a fresh modern take on Gypsy which is exquisitely staged and packs a powerful emotional punch. 

When you take your seat after the usual excellent buffet meal of steak pie and cheese and biscuits you can see the auditorium has been transformed by Jason Denver into the stages of 1920’s vaudeville venues. The raised and extended thrust stage with the move of front-row seats brings the performances even closer to the audience in what is already a delightfully intimate venue. There are slick scene changes with witty location descriptors, reminiscent of the signs to introduce each Variety act, built into the props and cloths to set the place like the moment described as Terminal Omaha reflecting both the station, they are in but also the breakup of the troupe. It is an incredibly creative solution to the lack of space and flying capacity and works wonderfully in setting the stage in each location with well-orchestrated cast-led changes.

As the overture strikes up Pitcher reminds us of his choreographic skills with a wonderful evocative tableau of dancers introducing the time, and characters with a young Louise (later Gypsy Rose Lee) lost in the middle of it all. We are transported to the period and the acts that trod the boards at that time. Equally, the beautiful costumes designed by Natalie Titchener add to this period feel and create some of the best-set pieces of the show like the children's audition (where we first hear Rose call “sing up Louise”) or the marvellously outrageous and comical stripper routine “You gotta get a gimmick” played with a gloriously over the top comic energy by Susanna van den Berg, Laura Tyrer, and Natalie Winsor.

The whole show revolves around the central performance of Rebecca Thornhill as the pushy mother Rose who keeps having a dream about the children’s act and referencing “the God Lord”. Many great names have played this role from Ethel Merman to Imelda Staunton, but Thornhill makes it her own. Moving with the elegance of Sutton Foster in the recent Anything Goes production (even when she trips on stage, she covers it amazingly!) and packing plenty of emotion into her show-stopping numbers “Everything’s Coming up Roses” which closes Act 1 and the extraordinary “Rose’s Turn” which closes the show. This powerful finale is given a fresh feel by her performance (and Francis Goodhand’s musical arrangement) with her nervous energy and desperation giving it a dramatic edge as if on the verge of a breakdown rather than just a poignant reflective anthem. 

Her relationship with Herbie, Daniel Crowder, charms us from their first meeting in “Small World”. His is a caring warm constant behind her obsessive desire for fame and they come together wonderfully with Evelyn Hoskins’s Louise in the pivotal song “Together wherever we go” in which the young girl, who has been treated as an invisible stooge most of her life is drawn into her mother’s world and starts to blossom and smile. Hoskins’s reactions to her mother’s desperate urgings are beautifully judged with a combination of wide-eyed horror, fear and reluctance being melted by a realisation of economic necessity. In the definitive “Let Me Entertain You” we see this continued transformation from her first reluctant moves which are uncomfortable to watch to her gradual realisation that she can exert control over her audience and escape her mother's grasp through her success. Pitcher adds a powerful touching moment when her younger self watches her tentative steps.

There is excellent support from the young version of Baby June (who delivers an impressively cute performance of “Let Me Entertain You”), the juvenile Newsboys, and the rest of the cast. In particular, Charlie Waddell is excellent as Tulsa in his soft shoe shuffle number “Broadway”. Pitcher uses them all and the auditorium cleverly gives the whole production the feel of a vaudeville show with musicians and stagehands visible while ensuring the narrative seamlessly links the scenes and the musical numbers captivate the audience with precisely executed dance routines. It was a delightful touch to have one dancer out of step when the familiar routine is worked one more time in the ”Toreadorables”.

Whether you know this show or not, it is definitely worth the trip out to Berkshire to catch this production which runs until July 15th. For those who know it, there is a freshness and creativity to the musical arrangements, staging and choreography which seems to reinvent the show and cover the less savoury aspects of the characters. For those who don’t know it, there is a score to be discovered with so many wonderful tunes by Julie Styne and witty lyrics by Sondheim and a true story of a period, one hundred years ago, to uncover about taking control of your life to deal with coercive behaviour which remains as relevant today as when the show was written. I doubt you will see better production values in any show this year, once again The Mill at Sonning sets a standard that few venues of this size can match.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Row F | Price of Ticket: £76
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