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Reviewed: Gypsy at The Little Theatre

Everything's coming up roses as KW Productions stage the iconic musical.

Debbie Longley-Brown as Rose. Photo by Dave Morris.
Debbie Longley-Brown as Rose. Photo by Dave Morris.

It's been a year since I started reviewing the musicals at The Little Theatre. It was KW Productions' last show - the NODA award-winning Calendar Girls - that prompted me to start, so moved by what I'd seen that I felt I had to tell more people about it.

Having been invited to review the dress rehearsal of this year's production of Gypsy, I had to make a conscious effort to lower my expectations, so as not to put unfair pressure on a completely different show.

I needn't have worried.

Written by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy depicts the rise to fame of Gypsy Rose Lee - perhaps the most famous striptease artist in history - and her mother Rose's determined efforts to make her a star. Rose is regarded as the King Lear of musical theatre roles, meaning you need to find a lead actor who's up to the task.

Debbie Longley-Brown is more than capable, playing the role with an upbeat sadness. On the surface, her Rose always seems optimistic and determined. Yet these shields cover the scars of being abandoned by everyone she loves, regret that her own career never worked out, and fear of what her life would be without show business.

Rose Bale, Tim Stokes, Joe Dickinson, Simon Butler, and Debbie Longley Brown. Photo by Dave Morris.
Rose Bale, Tim Stokes, Joe Dickinson, Simon Butler, and Debbie Longley Brown. Photo by Dave Morris.

Director Keiran Whelan-Newby has orchestrated a slick production - even the choreographed set changes are breath-taking at times. The use of strobe lighting to advance time as Rose's children grow up is clever, and despite there always being something going on, it never feels overwhelming.

Caroline Walsh's choreography feels classic but new, with the young-performers of act one, the Farm Boys and the Hollywood Blondes all adding memorable moments throughout this production.

The costuming in this production is immaculate. John Bale has provided everything from 1920-30s street clothes to simply unforgettable burlesque outfits - at least one of which will stay with me for some time (thank you Karen Gordon!).

Tim Stokes musical direction has appropriately tackled the scale of the score, while leaving room for the actors to perform. It compliments rather than dominates, making it incredibly easy for the audience to engage with each song and not get lost in unnecessarily complex orchestrations. Stokes begins the show on stage, delivering a fun overture to hook the audience from the first note.

The whole show is ridiculously well cast. The supporting roles are populated by actors who've played lead roles in other Little Theatre shows this season. The result being phenomenal strength in depth. It feels remiss not to mention everyone by name, but with the size of cast, that would make for the longest review ever - rest assured, those not named below also played their roles magnificently.

Rose Bale plays the title role, and her performance as Louise is pleasingly nuanced. Initially played low-status to emphasise the effect of growing up in her sister's shadow and eclipsed in her mother's affections. Bale portrays Louise's growth with a deft touch. This is shown most ably during the striptease sequence as Louise transforms into Gypsy Rose Lee. Bale's physicality changes, step by step, as Gypsy finally becomes comfortable in her own skin (and little else). There's also great charm to her dance performance with Tim Stokes for "All I Need Is The Girl", and her impressive vocals are on display throughout.

Rose Bale as Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee. Photo by Dave Morris.
Rose Bale as Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee. Photo by Dave Morris.

Katie Proctor and Ava-Lily Creed each dazzle as Louise's sister June. Both the adult and child versions of the character are full of vibrancy, radiating the star power that their mother sees in them. Proctor's turn from enthusiastic star to want-away-rebel feels earned and heart-breaking, as she realises she's outgrown her mother's efforts. Creed is a bundle of energy, and I'd imagine we'll see a lot more of her at The Little in the future.

Tony Whitmore's Herbie provides a counterpoint to Rose's ambition - his priorities are more familial, serving Rose out of his devotion to her and the girls rather than a passion for show business. Whitmore is charming throughout, and his song with Rose and Louise, "Together Wherever We Go" is a second half highlight.

And I can't not mention Liz Kavanagh-Knott, Karen Gordon and Victoria Price as the three veteran strippers, Tessie Tura, Mazeppa, and Electra. Their performance of "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" steals the second half, offering much hilarity and those unforgettable costumes.

Victoria Price, Rose Bale, Karen Gordon and Liz Kavanagh-Knott. Photo by Dave Morris.
Victoria Price, Rose Bale, Karen Gordon and Liz Kavanagh-Knott. Photo by Dave Morris.

For the majority of the first half, Gypsy feels like a comfortable pair of slippers. Soft, cosy, and familiar. Then, at the end of act one, we reach "Everything's Coming Up Roses", at which point, Debbie Longley-Brown takes the show by the scruff of its neck and shows it who's boss.

For that four minutes, Longley-Brown owns the theatre. Her vocal power is undeniable, but what makes this is the completeness of her performance throughout. The emotion. The facial expressions. The thinly-veiled desperation balanced by growing conviction. Performances like this make careers.

It's an epic show with a run time to match (the first half alone is 1hr 25mins), and while I can't help but feel one or two numbers are superfluous to the story, it does rattle along. Despite it's grand nature, it's surprisingly intimate. The staging is simple but effective - the dressing room in act two especially so. But despite show business and razzmatazz being front and centre, it's fundamentally a story about mothers and daughters. Of a woman wanting to gift her children what she never had (and always wanted)... no matter the cost.

I don't give star ratings on dress rehearsal reviews, but for the other reviewers who will follow me, I really don't know where you'd mark this down. You must go and see this.

Gypsy opens tonight at The Little Theatre, playing June 20-24, 2023. Tickets available from the box office (0116 255 1302) and website.


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