Reviewer: Mark Clegg
It’s probably fair to say that Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice would be no more than a footnote in history if it weren’t for the musical Funny Girl. Premiering on Broadway in 1964 thirteen years after her death, the show charts both the professional and personal highs and lows of the unconventional comic performer. It’s probably also fair to say that the musical Funny Girl would also be all-but-forgotten if it weren’t for one thing: Barbra Streisand. Streisand got her big break playing Brice in the original Broadway and London productions of the show and would go on to play her in two films: an adaptation of the musical in 1968 for which she won an Oscar and in its sequel Funny Lady in 1975. In fact despite the show’s popularity and the score containing several breakout songs, Streisand’s mark has been so indelible on the role that Funny Girl has never seen a full-scale revival – until now.
Despite many rumours and false starts over the years, Funny Girl finally returned to the stage properly over half a century after its birth when it opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory in late 2015 – immediately becoming the Menier’s fastest selling show ever. Transferring into London’s West End this April for a limited six month run, it has been recently announced that it will tour the UK in 2017. This CD features the London cast and is the first time that many of these numbers have been recorded since the original cast album.
Of course whoever plays Brice will immediately be compared to Streisand and this up-hill task has gone to Sheridan Smith, without doubt a talented performer whose appearances in Little Shop of Horrors and Legally Blonde were greatly praised. The same can be said for her Funny Girl stage performance with critics generally being favourable (despite her well-publicised ten week absence from the show). But how does she fare on this recording when robbed of visuals and libretto? Happy to report that she does rather well under very difficult circumstances.
The problem here is firstly the ghost of Streisand. Smith is clearly trying to be different but this route is limited since both performances are a portrayal of the same real person. Also Smith is neither American nor Jewish and this does sometimes come through in her accent and inflection, and her handling of the comedy is good but nowhere near as effortless as that of Streisand’s. However those experiencing this score for the first time should have no such qualms: Smith has a tough act to follow and should be praised for a strong, confident performance even when tackling the showstoppers People and Don’t Rain on My Parade. The rest of the cast are good but this is Brice’s story, and the character and Smith’s performance dominate the entire recording.
With richer orchestrations and more melodious supporting cast than the original album, this is definitely a CD worth owning. However with all due respect to Sheridan Smith’s impressive performance as Brice, it should still sit on the shelf alongside the earlier recording. After all, you simply cannot beat Barbra Streisand’s Fanny.