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REVIEW: Gypsy | State Theatre, Melbourne

Caroline O’Connor, perhaps the rightful holder of the First Lady of Musical Theatre mantle, stars in Gypsy, the great American musical. The Production Company breaks its usual mould with a solid mounting.

Caroline O'Connor in Gypsy | State Theatre

“You give ‘em a good finish, they’ll forgive you for anything,” Rose says in the second act of Gypsy. This has been the The Production Company’s ethos most of the time. Short seasons of big, splashy shows put together with just two weeks’ rehearsal, a couple of medium-sized names and an allegedly tiny budget. “Forgive our foibles,” the programs always scream, “we did this with six dollars and a couple of old smocks”, in an attempt to distract you from the fact you paid $100 for your ticket, just like you did with Wicked.

But finally, with Gypsy, the approach works.

If there’s a great American musical, Gypsy is it. The story of Rose (Caroline O’Connor) — the kind of stage mother who’d eat the entire cast of Dance Moms as a pre-breakfast snack — and her daughters June and Louise . They work the vaudeville circuit without much success in a cutesy, so-so act Rose has put together; first Baby June and Her Newsboys, then Dainty June and Her Farmboys, always with Louise in the background. Along the way, Rose picks up a man, the girls grow up, and June abandons the act. And by the time the curtain comes down, Louise has remade herself as Gypsy Rose Lee, the biggest burlesque star there ever was.

As Rose, O’Connor is not just in her wheelhouse, she’s pirouetting atop it; spirit fingers twinkling, skirts akimbo. In a role created by Ethel Merman, tackled since by Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, and described by many as the role for a woman in musical theatre, the anything-but-subtle O’Connor is world class. Her big second-act number “Rose’s Turn” doesn’t just stop the show, it damn near stops your heart.

Gemma Ashley-Kaplan as June and Christina Tan as Louise are good, and Tan really shines in her last ten minutes onstage once Louise sheds not just her name but her wardrobe. Matt Hetherington is miscast as Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering boyfriend, a role he’s neither old enough nor nebbish enough to play with much success.

The child cast are brilliant, both the newsboys and the girls who share the roles of young June (Hattie Hook on opening night) and young Louise (Quinn Cameron on opening night). The brilliant Nathan Pinnell as grown-up newsboy Tulsa nearly steals the show with his song-and-dance solo “All I Need is the Girl”, but his tap solo, performed inexplicably without tap shoes, plays strangely.

Chloe Dallimore, Nikki Wendt and Anne Wood in Gypsy

The show is actually stolen by Chloe Dallimore, Nikki Wendt and Anne Wood as Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra, with their drink-spillingly hilarious turns as jaded strippers who teach Louise a lesson in getting ahead. Wood, who hasn’t spent much time on the Australian stage since she originated the lead role in Mamma Mia, should be in everything.

Gypsy is a work by three masters of their craft and giants of the American musical theatre. The score, by Jule Styne — the man responsible for Don’t Rain On My Parade and Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend — is on par with his best work, Funny Girl. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are less sophisticated than the rest of his work, but still bang-on. And the book by Arthur Laurents is as subtle, heartbreaking and funny as it was in 1959.

The set, a black, raked platform augmented with some very clever flown-in pieces, is by Adam Gardnir — an obviously talented designer constrained by the tired orchestra-on-stage, we-can’t-afford-a-real-set Production Company schtick. Like all their recent shows, the stage is littered with boring, insipid strings of color-change LED lights that attempt to make up for the lack of physical pieces. At these ticket prices, they can afford to stage the show properly.

The lighting by Paul Jackson and Robert Cuddon is fine, but it relies too much on the let’s-turn-everything-the-same-colour nonsense that the LED lights dictate. Tim Chappel’s costumes are clever and flashy. The choreography, by Andrew Hallsworth, is tight, understated and a joy to watch. Guy Simpson’s musical direction is typically excellent, and the 24-piece orchestra is flawless under his baton.

Like she did last year with Chess, director Gale Edwards has messed with the show. This time, she’s cut lines here and there, and reassigned Rose’s solo, “Mr Goldstone” as a piece for the whole company. Like with Chess, her alterations are entirely unnecessary — and in the case of “Mr Goldstone”, detrimental to Rose’s character — but her direction is solid and confident; there’s an attention to detail and an execution of nuance here that is so often absent in Production Company shows. This is a cast who aren’t just on the same page, they’re jostling for space in the same paragraph. Whatever Edwards did in those two short rehearsal weeks, it must’ve involved magic.

For the first time, a Production Company show just might be worth its ticket price.

The details: Gypsy plays the State Theatre, Arts Centre until July 14. Tickets on the venue website.

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