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Review: Gypsy (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

The hit musical returns with a new staging in the round

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ria Jones (Rose) in Gypsy
© Johan Persson

Of all Manchester's merry musicals this season, this feels like a coup for the Royal Exchange. As if the pedigree of an Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne musical isn't grand enough, they've also secured international musical veteran Ria Jones. She excels in a cast who soar higher as the evening progresses, while the grandeur of the production design richly realises the period and the scale of an epic event.

"A Musical Fable" about family and togetherness, the relationship between Momma Rose and her two daughters June and Louise is tested on a relentless pursuit to become stars. As children, she perceives a likeability which she can harness to achieve her dreams for them, even as they grow increasingly disillusioned and yearn for their own independence.

It's little surprise as Ria Jones makes an austere matriarch as Momma Rose. More a director than a mother, she often bellows commands from the audience or puppeteers their movement from the stalls. She circumvents the obstacles to success with glaring wide eyes and a powerfully sonorous voice, patting her hair with self-confidence as she stage-manages their lives.

This plays out across a scratched mirror-disc stage, as though tarnished by the graft of past performers who've worked for stardom. It's towered over by a crane forming a proscenium arch, a permanent fixture above the action as Momma Rose's ultimate aspirations always hang over the characters. Both glistening structures are mobile, spinning like a globe as Rose constantly redefines her daughters' stage personas and whirls them through the theatre world.

Melissa James (Louise), Ria Jones (Rose) and ensemble in Gypsy
© Johan Persson

This intoxicating world is evoked by the resplendent design. Gabrielle Dalton's exquisite costumes provide lavish glamour and period detail, sparkling under Colin Grenfell's lighting which often utilises bold blues to wash the stage in Rose's dreams. Leo Munby's dreamy, brassy music is especially suited to vaudeville and burlesque, to which Andrew Wright contributes choreographic panache with an array of energetic routines.

The mantra "You're going to be a star" is insisted to Louise, but Melissa James ensures this is true of her own dynamite performance. Initially forlorn as the neglected child upstaged by her garish sister, she's suddenly thrust into the spotlight herself where she loses her girlish pigtails and evolves into self-possessed young woman. She marks this transformation with subtle alterations, pulling up her heavy posture into a proudly tall, straight back. Her complex characterisation is just as impressive as her final reprise of "Let Me Entertain You", a spectacular display of physical and vocal bravura which culminates in her spinning around the auditorium on the crane.

The production contrasts these dazzling excesses against the intimate, reflecting the girls' childhood and adolescence slipping by in chaotic showbiz extravagance. Rose tenaciously preserves their youth, insisting they'll never be "big girls" and complaining "you look old in a dress". Jones' consistent vocal register conveys this unremitting oppressive ambition which drives through everything, and we see the consequence of Louise's confused lost innocence when she sings to her bedroom toys in "Little Lamb".

At a long three hours, however, you might feel as though you've aged yourself. The play's full of cluttering repetitions which Jo Davies neglects to refine. The structure doubles the journey to fame as we watch June and then Louise ascend to glory, but compounding this are other scenes which are needlessly prolonged. The comic routine in the burlesque dressing room tires out laughter when all of the visual gags have to be repeated for all sides of the in-the-round audience. The endurance is finally rewarded at the very end with Jones' sensational finale "Rose's Turn", reacting with Rose's abashed surprise at the deservedly lengthy applause she earns.

"Sing out, Louise!" After such staggeringly enjoyable entertainment, how could anyone do anything else?