Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, suggested by memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Ria Jones (Rose) Credit: Johan Persson
Melissa James (Louise) Credit: Johan Persson
Melissa Lowe (June) Credit: Johan Persson
Dale Rapley (Herbie) Credit: Johan Persson
Melissa James (Louise), Ria Jones (Rose) Credit: Johan Persson
Melissa James (Louise) Credit: Johan Persson
Ria Jones (Rose) Credit: Johan Persson
Melissa James (Louise) Credit: Johan Persson
Louis Gaunt (Tulsa) Credit: Johan Persson

For this year's Christmas musical, the Royal Exchange has gone back 60 years to one of the few musicals for which Stephen Sondheim wrote only lyrics and not music (Ethel Merman didn't think he was famous enough) but with a book by his West Side Story collaborator Arthur Laurents and music by the great Jule Styne, it is still often voted the best musical of all time.

Anyone who has taught drama or dance classes for any length of time will recognise the brash, pretentious kids like June, and even worse their parents who think their little treasure should already be on the West End stage (a theatre owner says early on, "if there's anything I hate more than kids, it's kids on stage"). Rose is the ultimate nightmare showbiz mother (although apparently watered down from the real person), trampling over the protestations of agents, producers and stage crew, managing every aspect of her daughters' career onstage and off and even stealing from her own father to get what she wants.

I say daughters, but Baby June—marketed as such for years, even when clearly taller than her mother—is always the star with her clumsy high-kicking routine and flouncy dresses, whereas her older sister Louise is relegated to the background, although she does show a considerable talent for costume making. Rose persuades former agent Herbie to come out of retirement to manage 'the act' and keeps him dangling on a promise she'll marry him once they get to the next stage of her theatrical goals. But when 'Baby' June's ambitions to be an actress are thwarted by her mother who refuses to allow her to go off and be trained without her, June marries in secret and runs away.

But Rose has been left by many people before and hasn't let it thwart her ambition. She interrupts Louise and Herbie's dreams of settling down as a real family, just the three of them, with a new plan for a brand new act created around Louise. She ends the first act with the triumphant song "Everything's Coming Up Roses" with the twist that the two people to whom she is singing are looking at her in horror.

Vaudeville is dying during the Depression, so they end up in a burlesque house, sharing a dressing room with the strippers. When Rose offers her daughter to the manager as a stripper, that is too much for Herbie to take. However Louise takes to it, becoming famous enough to not need her mother any more but she won't let go, until, in response to Rose asking her who she thinks she did all this for, Louise gives an answer that is the key to the whole show: "I thought you did it for me." Rose comes to realise this herself in her final number, "Rose's Turn", a breakdown in song.

Jo Davies's production has some impressive attention to detail in the staging. The general transitions between scenes are very smooth, but there are two major transitions that are almost magical: when the child performers are replaced by adult actors mid-number in the first act and shy Louise's transformation into a confident performer as Gypsy Rose Lee with numerous on-stage costume changes in "Let Me Entertain You", putting a very different spin on the words of the song sung by her sister as a child. Andrew Wright's choreography makes full use of the stage and is just as impressive with the 'good' dancing as with the deliberately (hilariously) 'bad' moves performed by the children.

Francis O'Connor's design puts a proscenium arch on this in-the-round stage, which rotates at different times so it is blocking the view of someone different for each scene (for me, I could see at best two thirds of the stage during two numbers, including "You Gotta Get a Gimmick"), which is unfortunate, but generally the backstage look to onstage is effective. There is an eight-piece orchestra (except the drummer, who is relegated to a shed in the hall) behind an Art Deco railing on the first balcony, although for me the music is balanced right with the vocalists but doesn't feel punchy enough, as though something is lacking in the arrangements.

There is no way to play Mamma Rose other than as a force of nature, and Ria Jones gets this absolutely right, in some ways channeling Ethel Merman but making the part her own—you almost feel sorry for her by the end. Almost. Opposite her, trying to temper her worst excesses and rarely succeeding, Dale Rapley is wonderful as Herbie, a patient, lovable character who really deserves better. In the title role, Melissa James (who played another performer role in Wise Children when it came to Manchester earlier this year) is totally convincing as the shy, awkward teenager whose transformation is believable into someone who could quite easily be photographed for Vogue magazine. Melissa Lowe gets less of a chance to shine as adult June, but has a great scene with her sister before she leaves.

The children, who are in two teams, are also very good indeed; I saw the red team, in which Marley Quinlan-Gardner and Maddison Arnold (also played by Jennah Mohammed and Beverley Cooney for the blue team) were as convincing as any of the adults on stage.

There's no denying that this is a long show so don't expect to to get out early, but it's well worth it as the time flies by in a production that does do justice to the wonderful words and music of Laurents, Styne and Sondheim and, if you're like me, will have you skippng out of the theatre with a smile on your face.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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