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Appeal’s Gypsy says Let Me Entertain You at New Wolsey

PUBLISHED: 14:50 15 June 2017 | UPDATED: 14:51 15 June 2017

Appeal Theatre Group stage Gypsy at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre, June 21-24. Photo: Jonathan Terry

Appeal Theatre Group stage Gypsy at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre, June 21-24. Photo: Jonathan Terry

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Gypsy remains one of the great story-driven musicals of American theatre. David Henshall talks to director John Whelton about Appeal Theatre’s new production at the New Wolsey.

Appeal Theatre Group stage Gypsy at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre, June 21-24. Photo: Jonathan Terry Appeal Theatre Group stage Gypsy at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre, June 21-24. Photo: Jonathan Terry

Rose Thompson Horvick is by general consensus a monster, driven by an overwhelming ambition to see her children succeed in showbusiness. But she is also one of the great watchable characters in modern musical theatre, a meaty role that a lot of top actresses have embraced.

There are edges to this woman that you have to like and even admire and New York Times critic Frank Rich says she is Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear. Rival top critic Clive Barnes describes her as “horrific but one of the few truly complex characters in the American musical.”

And, monster or not, she achieves her aims but not in the way she intended. Her younger dancing and singing daughter June eventually runs off and becomes a moderately well-known film actress (June Havoc); the older one, Louise, less obviously talented as a vaudevillian, stumbles into burlesque by accident and makes a fortune as the most famous stripper of all time, Gypsy Rose Lee.

Later, as Louise Hovick, she makes a number of films in Hollywood which, although not particularly notable, pay a lot of bills. She also writes thriller novels and, inevitably, her life story, Gypsy. It is on this memoir that the stage musical, Gypsy, and the movie of the same name are loosely based.

Appeal Theatre Group stage Gypsy at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre, June 21-24. Photo: Jonathan Terry Appeal Theatre Group stage Gypsy at Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre, June 21-24. Photo: Jonathan Terry

With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, it was launched with the loud-hailer-voiced Ellen Merman as the domineering, pushy mother Rose. Since then she has been played by names like Angela Lansbury, Rosalind Russell, Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler. The 2015 London revival earned Imelda Staunton Laurance Olivier and Evening Standard awards as best actress in a musical.

Gypsy is regarded as one of the crowning successes of the mid-20th century theatre art form known as the book musical and, because of its story and tremendous score, it has remained hugely popular. No surprise then that Appeal Theatre has picked it for its summer show at the New Wolsey next week.

John Whelton, who is both director and musical director for Gypsy, thinks that Rose was a product of the age in which she grew up. America was, he says, still coming out of its Wild West gun-slinger age and “it must have been a rough time to be in travelling theatre and bringing up two daughters, especially when she had married twice and dumped both husbands.”

She certainly became a tough old broad later – a period not covered by the musical - when she was set up in a New York boarding house by Louise. The story goes that it became a bit of a lesbian haunt and Rose allegedly shot dead a woman who made a pass at Louise. It was passed off as suicide and she got away with it.

She also had an unforgiving nature, says John Whelton, because, later still, she bumped into and attempted to shoot the man who ran off with daughter June. She failed because the gun didn’t fire. She had left the safety catch on and bystanders were able to wrestle the weapon away from her in time.

Whelton spent a long time looking for his Rose and is delighted with Kerri-Ann Lees, who has spent most of her acting career with Woodbridge’s Company of Four playing roles like Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. “I thought she was great in auditions. She has a strong voice and is a good actress. People may not have heard of her but they will after this.”

How does he see Rose? “Imelda Staunton played her aggressively. I see her as a bit softer, making decision she regrets later. She’s blinkered and is going to have her daughters as stars no matter what.” June is quite successful in vaudeville but after she elopes with one of the dancers, Rose is forced to set up a new routine round Louise. Their second-rate act ends up a seedy burlesque theatre where, because they need the money Louise is introduced to stripping and accidently uncovers more than she’s meant to.

She changes her name to Gypsy Rose Lee and becomes as famous for her onstage chatter and wit as for her stripping style and is said to be the one who put the “tease” into striptease. Catherine Roberts, an Appeal regular who has also appeared with Gallery Players and Ipswich Operatic, plays Louise. She and Suzie Lowe are choreographing the show.

Ellena Bacon, who is joining the London Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts on a scholarship in September, is June with Darren Nunn, another familiar Appeal and Ipswich Operatic face, as Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering manager and the man geared up to be her third husband.

The show opens with Louise and June as children touring the vaudeville circuit with their mother in the 1920s. They are played by Lily Dickie and Ruby Lowery with more youngsters from the Suzie Lowe school as singers and dancers in a total cast of 30.

It’s a musical with a lot of big numbers, not least Rose’s great interval showstopper Everything’s Coming Up Roses and her Rose’s Turn that ends the show. There are standards like Together and Some People; the kids have Let Me Entertain You and the strippers have the funny You Gotta Get a Gimmick.

Appeal Theatre have over the years raised up to £45,000 for various charities and this year the money is going to local dementia organisations.

Gypsy is at the Ipswich New Wolsey 21 – 24 June, with a Saturday matinee. Tickets: 01473 295900 and www.wolseytheatre.co.uk

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