“I feel sorry for them being reviewed by you tonight,” said the friend I’d brought along with me to the opening night of Footlights’ production of Gypsy. “They have a lot to live up to.”
For context, the night before watching Gypsy at the Barnfield Theatre, I’d been with the same friend at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End watching the Olivier award-winning show Dreamgirls. I certainly didn’t intend to compare the two, but it’s safe to say that subconsciously, they had a tough act to follow.
And yet somehow, Footlights managed to hit the mark. Jule Styne’s production of Gypsy is widely referred to as the greatest American musical of all time, and their execution of it was powerful and involving. With a twenty-piece band on stage, an excellent cast performed the story of showbiz and family drama that sees the pushy Mamma Rose, (Charlotte Blakeman), raise her two daughters ‘to be stars’ – whatever that may take. The musical, which is loosely based on a true story, is a mixed bag of comedy, tension and heart.
I was happily entertained by the first act, but it very much picked up the pace after the interval, turning into a much darker and more elaborate story than I had anticipated. This second act was when the cast sharpened, truly coming into their own.
In particular, Blakeman’s performance as Mamma Rose was exceptional. Not only was her voice incredibly powerful, doing the show-stopping tunes like ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ more than justice, but her acting was the most compelling I’ve seen at Exeter. She played the complex character so phenomenally well that she could have been on a West End stage and I would not have questioned a thing.
Ashley Gillard and Amy Lotherington, who played the other principle roles of Herbie and Louise, were equally persuasive performers. The relations between them and Mamma Rose were taut and the three of them on stage made for some of the best moments of the show.
There were some minor technical issues with mics and set but it would be unfair to dwell on them – particularly as the cast dealt with them professionally. And, unlike on the West End, Footlights don’t have a budget of a good few million to invest in state of the art equipment. (If only, eh producers?). Despite this, the staging was very well conceptualised by director Ben Philipp and his creative team.
There may not have been an Amber Riley singing ‘And I Am Telling You’, but the performance of Gypsy was raw and full of spirit, and reminded me once again that you don’t need to pay hundreds of pounds to see real talent.
– Anna Bonet