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Milan gregory perera


She is the apotheosis of a stage mother. Mamma Rose would run through a brick wall to get her daughters into showbiz, the tigress who would leap through rings of fire for her “babies”. The role of Rose has been a benchmark role within musical theatre as much as King Lear has been for the stage. The multi-faceted and complex character of Rose has been interpreted by a long line of theatre luminaries, from Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, and Bernadette Peters to Imelda Staunton. And Abi Wander’s Mamma Rose never fails to move and thrill with her imperious rendition. It seems that everything’s coming up roses for Music Theatre Bristol (MTB) production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable.


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In the semi-lit Winston Theatre, the music director Madeleine

Warren gave a downbeat that struck a spark, electrifying the

cavernous space with anticipatory excitement. The audience

was taken to Post-Depression America, where everything

seemed to be in short supply, including hope and optimism,

but not for Rose. She is charming, inventive, manipulative and

petty at times. But, it is both premature and pedantic to raise

the question if Rose is a good person or not. Using an arbitrarily

defined yardstick of middle-class morality against a woman

fighting against all the odds in a “Man’s World” seems hardly

appropriate. It demonstrates how desperate situations call for

desperate actions, however unpalatable they may be. She is a

product of her environment, and her sheer determination to

break the vicious cycle of abject poverty to open a world of opportunities and possibilities for her daughters shines through the production. Gypsy (1959) was the partnership of two American musical titans: composer Jules Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Widely considered the most complete musical theatre idiom due to its memorable foot-tapping numbers and the core drama, which commands dazzling virtuosity and emotional intelligence.

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Rose is a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She is determined to make her daughters (June and Louise) Vaudeville starlets. After a string of rejections, Rose comes across Herbie, a travelling salesman who had been a stage agent in a former life. Herbie probably never fell in love with Rose, but he has been searching for someone like Rose, who would quieten his oscillating anxiety and enrich his emotionally bereft soul. Rose may have toyed with Herbie’s naïveté in order to propel her daughters to the limelight. June breaks Rose’s heart as she runs away with a fellow troupe member, Tulsa, to start a family, spurning the life of showbiz. The emotionally betrayed mother invests all her hopes in Louise, who is hardly interested in “clowning”.

All the musical numbers were conceived and crafted with close attention to detail by the creative cohort of Gypsy. The songs hopscotch from profound to absurd seamlessly with verve and vitality. In a number like “Mr. Goldstone, I love you”, there is neatly orchestrated chaos on stage; people waking from sleep, still in their pyjamas, while Rose is one a full-on charm offensive to Mr. Goldstone, an executive at the Orpheum Circuit (Josh Simango). The signature tune of Rose and Herbie, “You’ll never get away from me", is heartfelt and poignant, full of tender moments neatly executed by Abi Wander and Finley Carty-Howe. It blows off any speculations that the relationship between Rose and Herbie is a union of convenience; in reality, they have lots of love for one another. The number concludes with a well-timed stage kiss, much to the delight of the audience.

The casting of Rudden and Serafina Bird as Baby June and June is spot on, as the transition is seamless and spontaneous. They both embody the effervescence and vivacity of June in spades, as demonstrated by the magisterial rendition of “May we entertain you”. Finley Carty-Howe, who plays Herbie, is no stranger to gargantuan MTB productions, as he ably demonstrated his thespian skills with Heathers and The Showcase in the past. His portrayal of Herbie is effortless and mellifluous as he manages to capture the depth of Herbie’s character. Tom Wilson-Dowdeswell is a revelation in the role of Tulsa, as his ridiculously good looks and flawless delivery would entice anyone to elope with him. Becky Stanton as Baby Louise manages to capture the thumb-sucking naïveté and shyness of Louise, while Madeleine Morgan rises to the unenviable task of portraying the transition of Louise from a shy and reserved teenager to enchanting and supremely confident Miss Gypsy Rose Lee with aplomb and grace.

But what a tour de force performance by Abi Wander in the titular role. She captured the complexity of Rose’s character with empathy and finesse. The danger of playing such a role is either reducing it into caricature or turning it into kitsch. Wander’s performance was graced with force and restraint, as it required avoiding the above-mentioned pitfalls. When performing Rose’s number of indignation, “Some People”, she demonstrated her scope as a performer firing on all cylinders. She flooded the Winston Theatre with the golden stream of her vocals like the luxuriating sunshine of her native North London on a summer’s day.


Sam Sayan’s direction is brimming with freshness and vitality, while the choreography of Eve Bird, Alice Fenton and Grace Anderson is sassy, slick and sensational. The burlesque dancers captivated the audience with their silky, sultry and simmering routine for “You gotta get a gimmick”. In contrast, the sequence of Jessie Milson and Marine Saint was nostalgic and heartfelt.

The climax of the show is perhaps the exchange between Rose and Louise, where Louise is forging her new identity as Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, the most sought-after burlesque performer in America. Rose is losing her place of importance in Louise’s life with every passing bar. Wander and Morgan neatly executed the exchange with razor-blade precision without ever veering into overacting. There was a flash of heartrending sadness as Rose resigned to her fate bereft of love, affection and respect after devoting her life to her children. It is hard to contain a tear when she looks in the mirror and sings of her dashed dreams.


The orchestra, under the flawless direction of Madeleine Warren, provided an excellent accompaniment replete with mercurial brilliance. The raucous standing ovation at the curtain call was an unmistakable seal of approval for this adrenaline-pumping high-racing showstopper.

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