What is it about musicals? On the surface they’re pure entertainment, but beneath the tinkling tunes seethes the turbulent underbelly of existence. It seems nothing is spared – everything from murder to drugs. Rehab the Musical opens in London in the autumn and this summer there’s a musical about the Operation Julie LSD bust making its debut in Aberystwyth. Um, what rhymes with Julie?

It’s true that a toe-tapping score makes even the most unpalatable subject matter rather more digestible – just look at Miss Saigon. And so on to Gypsy, a legendary musical about a pushy showbiz mother and the daughter who eventually becomes a celebrated stripper.

With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne’s score, Gypsy has the reputation as one of the great American musicals and, with this stunning production, you can well believe it.

The last time I saw Gypsy was at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre in 2020 with Ria Jones as Mama Rose. She and the rest cast gave good solid performances and it was an enjoyable show, but this is so much more slick, sassy and exhilarating. This is partly because Joanna Riding, who stars in the Mama role at Buxton, is such an electrifying presence. She dominates the production, just as she dominates the daughters who feed her fever for stardom.

The action takes place in the depression era of the 1920s and 30s, and the show has the gorgeous feel of the jazz age. The orchestra is sensational from the minute they strike up with an overture featuring Sondheim and Styne’s hits, notably Everything’s Coming Up Roses, and sweep us effortlessly through three hours of musical magnificence. We are at Buxton Opera House but we could actually be at a theatre in London’s West End. It is that good a production.

Meanwhile, Mama Rose is determined to make stars of her two daughters by dragging them unwillingly from vaudeville theatre to vaudeville theatre, until vaudeville eventually goes out of fashion. She forfeits the security of relationships, including that of devoted tour manager Herbie (David Leonard) and eventually her eldest daughter June (Hannah Everest), in her quest. Of course, it is the wish to see her own name in lights that fuels her frantic desire for fame at all costs. Like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, given the right circumstances she “coulda been a contender” but it is her daughter Louise (Monique Young) who finally makes it. As a burlesque superstar. Not exactly the kind of fame that Rose had in mind.

While Paul Kerryson’s direction keeps the look and feel of the show ‘classic’ in this age of Love Island, the relevance of ‘fame at any cost’ still resonates. Rose goes her own way and likes it. And why shouldn’t she? Thanks to Young who carries off the transformation from a mousy Mama-pleaser into a stage legend, we can’t fail to applaud the fact that she is finally free.

By Janet Reeder

Photos by Genevieve Girling

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Gypsy is at Buxton Opera House until July 24, 2022. For more information, click here.