AussieTheatre’s Sydney writer Ben Neutze made his way to Melbourne for a taste of the Victorian theatrical scene this week. We think he fell in love with Caroline O’Connor…
As a critic, one of the things you’re always cautious of is overselling a show. You don’t want to build your readers’ expectations so sky-high that the performance they see can’t possibly live up to what they’d hoped for. But then there’s the rare (very rare) occasion where you realise you probably can’t oversell what it is you’ve just seen.
I made the trip down to Melbourne last weekend to see the Production Company’s Gypsy. I booked my tickets months ago and went by myself because, for me, this trip was serious business. It was all about seeing what I consider to be the most perfectly written musical of all time (I also saw King Kong, but the six-metre tall monkey couldn’t overshadow what I saw onstage at the Arts Centre). It’s been said time and again that Mama Rose is the ‘King Lear’ of musical theatre, and I absolutely believe this to be true. So given the enormity of the role, I thought I’d take the time to analyse exactly what Caroline O’Connor is doing with Mama Rose and why it’s such an achievement. That’s not to say that there aren’t other fantastic elements of the Gale Edwards-led production, but here are a few too many gushing words about O’Connor’s Rose.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find out that Caroline O’Connor delivers a stunning performance as Mama Rose. She’s long been a ferocious talent working both here and internationally. Her Velma Kelly in Chicago was one of the finest of the past two decades and just weeks ago she had one of the only true showstopper moments at this year’s Tony Awards.
But Mama Rose is a difficult beast and there’s one aspect of the role I feared may be just beyond O’Connor’s reach. First of all, anyone who takes on the role is aware of those who have gone before. Broadway goddesses like Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, Betty Buckley, Bette Midler and Tyne Daly and local stars Toni Lamond and Judi Connelli have all put their own very distinctive stamp on the role, so the onus is on the performer to bring something special. Secondly, it’s complex, a massive sing and requires a kind of determined intensity. But given O’Connor’s technical skills, that isn’t the aspect of the role that had me worried.
Everyone who has seen O’Connor work would tell you one thing about her; she is the consummate professional. Her voice is technically secure with the brassy edge of Merman’s belt, but gorgeously warm, her dancing is top-notch and she can slip into any character at the drop of a hat (as she convincingly proved in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Bombshells). You can tell that she works and works and works so that her performances run like well-oiled machines. When she’s onstage, she’s completely in control, which in some ways isn’t ideal for Rose.
Rose has a certain trajectory; she’s a runaway train, speeding down the tracks constantly threatening to fall off until the final moments where the train actually comes tumbling down.
If O’Connor has had a flaw in the past, it’s that she’s been determined not to be too vulnerable onstage. This isn’t a role that you can play without allowing an audience to see damage and genuine pain. Quite simply, Mama Rose needs to come off the tracks. There are bootlegs of O’Connor’s performance as Rose in Leicester last year where you can hear in her ‘Rose’s Turn’ that she’s delivering a great performance, but not completely letting loose and letting the audience in. In Melbourne? That’s not at all the case.
Whether it’s the work of Gale Edwards or just more experience with the role, O’Connor is now delivering both Rose’s lethal and vulnerable sides perfectly. It’s truly a masterful performance.
There’s also something about Roses tackling the role a second time around. When Patti LuPone initially took on the role in New York’s Encores series in July 2007, she won praise, but in Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times, was criticised for not having the focus required to be “the child-flattening maternal steamroller with Broadway dreams.” When she took on the role on Broadway in early 2008, Brantley practically ate his hat in a review that began, “Watch out, New York. Patti LuPone has found her focus. And when Ms. LuPone is truly focused, she’s a laser, she incinerates.”
O’Connor almost had the opposite problem. She’s not the type of performer who could ever struggle to find the focus, but the vulnerability could’ve tripped her off. Where LuPone found her focus, O’Connor found her vulnerability and they both delivered performances that defy superlatives.
Mama Rose is a gift of a role, and in the hands of an actress with the right set of skills, at the right point in their career, it’s potentially revelatory. It is a sink or swim role and O’Connor doesn’t just swim, she sails and then magically takes off.
It’s something that we see so rarely on our stages, so it would be a massive shame to have it end with just nine performances in Melbourne. So here’s a message to every producer working in musical theatre in Australia: If you’re serious about presenting musical theatre of the highest quality with our greatest performers, don’t let this production end here! Audiences all around the country need to see this truly remarkable performance, because it is the type of performance you’re lucky to witness just once in your lifetime. If I had the money and the resources to do so, I couldn’t deny the rest of Australia the opportunity to see this performance.
This needs a national tour. Make it happen!