Styne and Sondheim’s Gypsy is the Hamlet of the musical theatre: many try, many fail, but a success in the role adds a magical aura to a career. Thank goodness that Loretta Goggi, as Italy’s first Rose, had the taste, guts, and believability to carry it off, because it was one of the few things that truly worked in this production.
Goggi certainly didn’t give a perfect performance; her voice is in shreds and, at least on the last night of the Milan run, some pre-recorded passages were used to take the pressure off her ailing chords. But Goggi is one of those Minnelli-like ‘give it all you’ve got’ performers, who moves you with her commitment, hits the emotional g-spot with her timing and acting skills, and her vocal technique keeps her tired voice in tune. Also to keep Rose sympathetic to an audience is notoriously difficult, but Goggi always wears her heart on her sleeve and is so fondly regarded from television appearances over a very long career, that she would be loveable playing Myra Hindley.
The other performers are weak, though sometimes likeable. Louise doesn’t have the pizzazz to be a credible burlesque star, June isn’t flashy enough, and the four boys are sloppy in the choreography. Having said that, they are squeezed into one of the worst theatre in the world, Milan’s Teatro Nuovo. It has a proscenium so low that choreographic lifts would be risky, and backstage must be a labyrinth to negotiate getting on and off stage. The singing isn’t all it should be either, though the Gotta Getta Gimmick trio got an ovation from a perplexed audience.
Technical aspects were dodgy too. Heavy over-miking gave each gesture such as removing a coat or opening a letter a cartoon-like sound effect; the use of moving heads for lighting is tricky in a musical set in the ’20s and ’30s, and sometimes a little disco found its way onstage; and the scenery, though seemingly inspired by recent rivals, lacked coherence and flair.
The heart of the problem though is that the audience doesn’t care about what’s happening on stage, it just waits for the next musical number. Yet a musical that isn’t sung-through should be able to exist as a play if the songs and dance numbers are removed. This is the starting point for the director and performers. When Herbie leaves, when Rose admits she pushed her girls because she just wanted to be noticed, when Louise is repeatedly ignored by her mother and then humiliatingly manipulated to go on stage and strip, we should be moved. We weren’t.