Friday, November 10, 2017


Little Theatre Company at the Palace Theatre, Southend

Stripper and author Gypsy Rose Lee was a close contemporary of Westcliff’s historic theatre. Like her, it’s witnessed the death of Variety. So it’s particularly fitting that it should house this superlative production of the show, and get its moment in the spotlight, substituting in the audition scene for T T Grantzinger’s Palace Theatre in New York.
As all fans of the musical theatre will know, there’s been a high-profile, starry revival of this, so expectations must have been high as Essex awaited this production, by Darren Harper for the Little Theatre Company.
Exceeded many times over, I would suggest, with a show that feels professional in every department, from the polished sound of the pit band, conducted by Clare Penfold, to the glossy programme, edited by Gemma Carracher and designed by Bradley Green.
It’s not really about the stripper, of course, but her determined “stage mother” Madame Rose. This force of nature is played by Stephanie Wilson; a marathon performance that never misses a beat. The numbers are impeccably sung; everything is immaculately judged – pinching Pop’s long-service plaque, picking up juvenile talent on the road, willing her daughters on from the wings, upbeat at the end of Act One, broken and defeated at the end of Act Two. We feel for her throughout her journey, so I was relieved she got the relatively happy ending which was also used in Chichester.
This was an extraordinary tour-de-force by an experienced musical theatre performer at the height of her powers. But it was by no means the only outstanding turn.
Alice Fillary, in her first appearance with LTC, is a superbly subtle Louise, evolving from the lumpen “Plug” to the slinky star of burlesque. The shy smile as she retrieves the glove she dropped is the turning point, perhaps. Her duet with “Dainty” June [Eleanor Softly] – If Momma was Married, some of Sondheim’s best lyrics here – is beautifully played.
As the generous, forgiving Herbie, Ian Benson brought a gentle charm and a pleasingly warm vocal tone. A lovely triple from Paul Allwright, including a bemused “have an egg roll” Mr Goldstone and Rose’s father.
Laura Witherall’s choreography includes some fabulously cheesy routines – the Broadway Chorus Boys – and it is good to see a fine dancer [Chris Higginson] in the role of Tulsa, the boy who elopes with Baby June. His sequence with Louise – All I Need is the Girlis very movingly done.
The casting is strong all the way down the billing to Chowsie the dog. It would be impossible to name-check everyone, but unforgivable to omit the children – Holly Hall, with her Shirley Temple smile, was Baby June when I saw the show – or the raddled strippers – Lianne Larthe doubling Electra and the cynical Miss Crachitt in the traditional fashion.
Only my second experience of Little Theatre Company, I think, and my last “professional” visit to the dear old Palace. Wonderfully memorable on both counts, I’m delighted to report.

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