Tag Archives: Arthur Laurents

Gang Show


Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 29th August, 2019


For the first time in its illustrious 120-year history, Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre is producing its own youth-group musical.  The Bernstein-Sondheim masterpiece is an ambitious choice but it is soon clear that the cast of 40+ young people is more than up for the challenge.

Director-choreographer Matt Hawksworth harnesses the abundance of talent so that it showcases the considerable strengths of the performers, while ensuring creative decisions keep the power of the material to the fore.  It does get off to a bit of a bitty start, though, with some pre-show milling around while the audience comes in, when a clean opening would have more impact, but once the show gets properly underway, and the action is properly focussed, it’s a compelling, emotional piece of theatre.

Matthew Pandya makes an impact as Jets-leader Riff, brimming with attitude.  Fellow gang member Action (Brook Jenkins) comes into his own for Gee Officer Krupke.  In the Sharks, Gibsa Bah is an imposing Bernardo, with Carter Smith on good form as his lieutenant Chino.

Ruby Hewitt’s Anita is remarkable: humorous, sassy, worldly, warm-hearted, vulnerable, in a hugely satisfying portrayal.  There is also some fine character work from Hannah Swingler as drugstore proprietor Doc, despairing at the conduct of the hoodlums.

The show, of course, pivots on its main couple.  Kamilla Fernandes is a knock-out as Maria, going from sweetness and innocence to embittered fury and emotional devastation by the conclusion of the story’s tragic events.  Her scenes with Hewitt’s Anita are where the dialogue really comes to life.  At other points, the quickfire lines of Arthur Laurents’s arcane slang, get a bit lost, especially in large group scenes: the acting needs to be as taut as the singing and the choreography.

The evening belongs, though, to an absolutely stellar performance from sixteen-year-old Alex Cook as Tony.  His two big solos in the first act are goosebump-inducing marvels, as Cook demonstrates perfect control of his voice and his thorough understanding of the character’s mind.  The skill on display is staggering, and the emotional punch of the playing earns him a round of applause that stops the show.

What comes across as much as the talent and energy of the cast, is the power of the material.  Shakespeare’s plot, translated to 1950s New York, is rife with issues still prevalent to this day: knife crime, the disaffection of youth, divisions in society, anti-immigrant prejudices… and the sumptuous score of Leonard Bernstein coupled with the wit and mastery of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, reminding us why West Side Story is one of the greatest musicals of all time.   An excellent choice, yielding a potent production.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 120 years for the next one.

Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cooke Credit Olivia Ahmadi

Two stars are born: Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cook (Photo: Olivia Ahmadi)

Let Them Entertain You

Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 13th March, 2012

Paul Kerryson’s revival of the Jule Styne/Arthur Laurents 1959 musical continues the run of superb productions at this remarkable venue. With a strong cast and production values to rival any West End production, this is a powerful show, relentless as its central character.

And what a central character! Ostensibly this is a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrated clothing remover, but the action is dominated by the pushiest of pushy stage mothers, Rose (a barnstorming Caroline O’Connor). Rose is an absolute monster, infantilising her daughters in order to keep their tired Vaudeville act doing the rounds, year after year. The young Baby June (played in the show I saw by nine-year-old Hannah Everest) gives a truly nauseating performance, all squeals, splits and baton twirling. I believe we are intended to view the cutesiness from outside and recognise the awfulness of the act. Performers and director keep this distinction clearly drawn: the difference between when the characters are singing as themselves and when they are ‘performing’ their act.

There is a very effective transition from young to older cast achieved through the simple application of a strobe light. Indeed, apart from using back-projections of period newspaper advertisements, blown up huge as ironic counterpoints to the action, this is a very traditional staging, allowing the strength of the story and the performers to shine.

Caroline O’Connor largely makes the part her own although the ghost of Ethel Merman is never far away from her vowel sounds. The monstrousness of Rose, her ambition fuelled by delusion and driven by a sort of Munchausen’s syndrome is her tragic flaw. When meal ticket Baby June elopes with one of the overgrown chorus boys, everyone thinks that’s the end of the act. But not Rose. She turns to neglected and overlooked daughter Louise (Victoria Hamilton-Barrit) and instantly forms a plan to remake the act with her as the star. Heard in context, classic song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is chilling in its intensity. At the end, Rose storms the stage in a kind of musical breakdown but by the end of the number she has composed herself and is back the same as she always was. It is not like she hasn’t learned anything but she chooses to ignore it and wilfully puts her blinkers back on.

Louise, desperate for affection, attention and keen to please, winds up as a tentative stripper in a burlesque theatre. She subverts her sister’s signature song, “Let Me Entertain You” wringing out the double entendres of Sondheim’s lyrics. She soon takes to stripping like a duck to plucking and becomes rich and famous in no time. Standing up to her mother at last, she shows us how far she has come. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit gives the strongest performance of the lot, from boyish teenager, self-effacing and kind, to the assured and exotic mature woman she becomes, still generous enough in spirit to humour and forgive her overbearing mother.

It’s a dark story, leavened with humour and heart. The supporting players are all very good. The trio of strippers almost steal the show with their number, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” (which contains the marvellous Stephen Sondheim lyric – If you want to bump it, bump it with a trumpet). The quality of the production never falters. I hope this Gypsy, like other Curve productions before it, will take to the road.