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Gypsy as presented by UCD Musical Society

Gypsy as performed by UCD Musical Society:

Date of Adjudication: Friday 8th March, 2024.

It shouldn’t surprise me at all that on International Women’s Day, I was attending a show where a strong and capable woman held the Director’s reins and took responsibility for drawing together all the various strands and elements that make up a Musical Production. The show in question was Gypsy, and the Director was Aoife Joy Keogh, and I’m sure that she didn’t mind that it’s a show where women hold centre stage for almost the entire show. It’s a show that doesn’t get many outings on the amateur circuit, and the reasons are obvious. There are few opportunities for chorus, it’s demanding scenically, it begs for a big orchestra, it (usually) requires a lot of kids, and many see it as a bit of a one-woman show. I can’t argue with any of that, but thank God there are groups like UCD Musical Society who are prepared to go for a show of this nature, for it also happens to have an incredible musical score, great comedy and an immensely moving dramatic story.

While it may be based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, it really is more about her psychotic mother, Rose, an eternal optimist, a ruthless manipulator, who tries to channel, through her daughters, the success in show-business that she never managed to achieve herself, obviously, with devastating consequences. Aoife Joy Keogh cast her show perfectly, drew out many amazing characters and performances, overcame most of the problems of staging, and presented a show that was as varied and vivacious as the mood swings of her central character. In a story which is basically quite depressing, she put good emphasis on the opportunities to play up the comedy, and there was a sentimental streak in her handling of the relationship between Rose and Herbie. But it was the dramatic moments, the pauses, the silences, the unspoken truths that really hit home in a production that was very well-paced and passionate. It was always apparent how much thought went into this delightful presentation.

As roles go, Rose has to be one of the most demanding in Musical Theatre, requiring strong serious acting, strong comedy, a belter of a voice and the charisma to turn a tyrant into a sympathetic leading lady, a tall order for even a seasoned professional, and yet, Ciara McKenna, a student in her mid-twenties, managed to pull it off with a level of excellence that was awe inspiring. Her comedy was pointed and perfectly timed, her singing was remarkable and her serious acting was quite simply superb. You couldn’t not love her, even at her most hateful, for even though of her own making, her story is heartbreaking. Ciara didn’t put a line, a foot, a note nor a look out of place all night, and when her pain culminated in a spine tingling rendition of Rose’s Turn, the audience were on their feet, mid-show, and this adjudicator was beside himself with emotion. Displaying a maturity well beyond her years, this was an exceptional performance from an exceptional young lady.

In the role of Herbie, the potential future husband of Rose, Elijah Lopez played his part with humour, patience, sometimes reluctance, sometimes anger, but always with a quiet dignity and a genuine heart. The rocky road of his relationship with Rose was fraught with misfortune, but through it all, he did his best to be a father to her girls and a friend to those she cast aside. Elijah successfully portrayed this character, and did so with fine acting and a very tuneful voice.

The part of talented daughter, Baby June, was played by Doireann McAuley. She portrayed that stage struck kid that everyone loves to hate, the constant cheesy grin, the squeaky annoying voice and the show-off dance moves, and she played it so brilliantly that she positively grated on my nerves, and I totally mean that as a compliment! Her singing and dancing were great.

Alongside her was Baby Louise, played by Aimee O’Neill, who did a great job of being the ‘talentless’ daughter, being skillfully behind the beat in the dancing and perfectly giving the impression of being the also-ran of the family. That she did so without a hint of jealousy of her younger sister was a tribute to a part well-played. These two together managed so well to present themselves as little kids, despite being considerably older.

During a well-organized dance routine, Baby June and Baby Louise are magically (cleverly) transformed into June and Louise as teenagers. Taking over as June, Amber Dixon had great fun playing the more grown up spoil brat, maintaining her youthful energy but adding to it the new dimension of a teenager who wanted to escape the apron strings of her mother and make a life for herself. Always apparent, though, was a very sincere love for her sister. This was a great role for Amber, displaying the breadth of her talents in acting, singing and dancing.

The teenage Louise was played delightfully by Liadh Murphy, initially still the tomboy, background figure who only has her little stuffed animals for companionship. Her delivery of Little Lamb was beautiful. When we reach the stage where her mother forces her to become a stripper, she played the reluctance to go down that route brilliantly, and even as she reached the level of stardom, there was a dignity and pride in her performance which strengthened her character. She never allowed self-pity to rear its head, despite being the most wronged person in the cast, and her quiet dignity is what marked this as a very beautiful performance. Amber and Liadh together, performing If Momma Was Married, was one of the musical highlights of the show.

Colm Fagan turned in a neat performance as an ambitious young dancer, Tulsa, singing delightfully for All I Need Is The Girl, and showing that he’s no slouch on his feet either. Impressive too, was Jemma Walsh as Agnes/Amanda, capturing the giddiness and innocence of a young wannabe performer.

And then there were the strippers. Eva Furlong as Tessie, Julie Bowell as Mazeppa and Sorcha McGlynn as Electra. I’m quite sure they’re really lovely girls, but my God, they were hideous, thanks to brilliant make-up, tacky costumes and excellent acting. Each with their own characteristics and very good, rasping voices, they were individually strong but as a trio in You Gotta Have A Gimmick, they rocked the house. Such great entertainment.

There were several other strong characters, such as Irina Agotha as a good dismissive and opinionated Miss Cratchitt, and Francesco Bach as Kansas, one of the quirky Newsboys, who, along with Cian Cunningham as L.A and Eoin Murphy as Little Rock, made a Good song and dance backing group for Baby June.

The remaining men in the cast, Connor Kirwan, Eoin Dunnion and Joseph Gibney each doubled up in playing cameo character roles, all of which were nicely portrayed.

And since there was no real chorus, as such, I must mention the remainder of the girls, Brianna Kelly, Cara McCrystal, Ella Fitzpatrick, Imani Antoun, Jennifer Yorke, Maya Gaul, Mercedes Estarellas and Niamh O’Brien, each of whom contributed well to the show as auditionees, or dancers or the singing and dancing Hollywood Blondes.

Musical Director, Dermot Edmondson, had a beautiful 20-piece orchestra at his disposal to add a wonderful accompaniment to the show, which they did with a robust and enthusiastic treatment. They were strong on tempi and had a lovely balance between the orchestra sections, and despite their numbers, they never drowned out the singers on stage. Principal singers were obviously well-rehearsed and Vocal Director, Ríona Keogh had done good work with the Newsboys, the Hollywood Blondes and the Toreadorables, ensuring that their vocal contributions were up to scratch.

Choreographer, Megan O’Neill, did a good job of presenting cheesy, teeth-and-smiles routines with Rose’s Babes, which all fitted very nicely with them being a troop of wannabe performers, rather than slick, polished professionals. She saved her best work for the team that performed All I Need is the Girl with Tulsa, and a very good Broadway routine. There was fine work done, too, with the principals, particularly the excellent “Gimmick” routine with the Strippers.

The amount of furniture and props that Stage Managers, Ella Ruddle and Patrick MacFhionnlaoich and their team, had to set up and clear, did result in a few changes being a tad slow, but by and large, the simplicity of the staging did help with the flow of the show, which skips through a multitude of venues quite rapidly. The director chose to use a neutral set for this production, with a very fine painted background representing Vaudeville, and everything else achieved with a few moving doors and a selection of furniture. It was only the sequence where Gypsy’s road to stardom is being mapped out, from venue to venue throughout America, where perhaps more could have been done to make each venue more flamboyant than the last. Even with good lighting, this was when the stage was noticeably bare. Lighting of special areas did help to change location, and there was good use of colour and tone to create atmosphere. The dramatic scenes were always well-highlighted. As suggested above, there was a well-balanced sound system that allowed every word to be heard. The side screens were nicely used to indicate locations, and only on one occasion did they get slightly ahead of themselves, and it was quickly spotted and remedied. Costumes for the show were very good, and cleverly had the look of being showy without being over-glamorized. Recognizing that these performers were playing the Vaudeville Circuit and not Broadway. The various sets of costumes for the support performers were all very good, and the blonde wigs for the Hollywood Blondes were good. Top marks go to the combined efforts of the make-up, hairstylists and the costume department for the stunningly grotesque creations that were the strippers, Tessa, Mazeppa and Electra.

Finally, to all at UCD Musical Society, it has been my very great pleasure and privilege to enjoy three of your shows this season, and I am confident that you will be leaving behind you a legacy of energy, enthusiasm and excellence. I have enjoyed that journey with you so much and I can only hope that in the future you will find happy places to carry on your obvious passion for Musical Theatre. To each of you, I predict… “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great. Gonna have the whole world on a plate. Startin’ her, startin’ now, honey, Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” Thank you for a very special night.

Peter Kennedy

Gilbert Adjudicator 2023/24

Photos by: Molly Coogan and Daniel Jackman.


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