There aren’t many better roles in musical theatre than Gypsy’s indomitable Mama Rose. Any production of Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical fable stands and falls on the performance of the quintessential pushy showbiz mother, assayed over the years by a who’s who of grand theatrical dames, from Ethel Merman in the original 1959 Broadway production to Imelda Staunton’s ecstatically received, Olivier-winning 2014 Chichester Festival Theatre incarnation.
Ria Jones certainly has the musical chops for the part. A performer with three decades of West End musical roles to her name, she is not surprisingly in her element unleashing the beast in show-stopping numbers like Everything’s Coming Up Roses, thumpingly orchestrated by Sam Davis and sparkily performed by Leo Munby’s on point eight-piece band. But, outside of these, her take on Rose is more nuanced and tender. Her repeated pledge to turn her daughters into stars still sounds more like a snarled threat than a promise, but this is a softer and initially more sympathetic Rose.
She shares convincing chemistry with Dale Rapley’s put-upon, permanently betrothed Herbie. But their partnership revs up a gear whenever they switch into song, Jones displaying Rose’s cajoling charms to full effect in You’ll Never Get Away from Me, which showcases Sondheim’s still unmatched knack for knowingly witty lyrics.
Unfortunately, this more realistic approach ends up tempering the drama. The big emotional beats – such as when Rose discovers her precious June (a suitably precocious, cart-wheeling Melissa Lowe) has eloped or when Herbie finally walks out – land convincingly, without ever quite delivering the gut punches the story requires.
But Jones is never less than believable and, elsewhere, Jo Davies’ bustling production doesn’t put a foot wrong. Early sections marshalling a small army of child performers capture the chaos of cattle-call auditions perfectly. Even more impressively, designer Francis O’Connor and choreographer Andrew Wright rise to the challenge of retrofitting vaudeville scenes designed to be played out on traditional front-facing stages to the Exchange’s trademark in-the-round space.
Of these, the eye-poppingly co-ordinated, trampoline-centred climax to a tackily patriotic song and dance number is a real highlight, seamlessly morphing child actors into their adult counterparts. Similarly, the large proscenium arch-come-lighting gantry, which looms over proceedings and cleverly rotates with the action, comes into its own during Louise’s transformative Let Me Entertain You (a sequence made even more remarkable by a series of ever-more ingenious costume changes) as the now fully formed Gypsy Rose Lee rides it like a fairground carousel.
It’s almost the star of the show, save for Jones’ roof-raising rendition of Rose’s Turn and Melissa James’ engaging performance as Louise, her journey from shy second fiddle to self-assured main attraction providing the show’s most satisfy through-line.