Book: Isobel Lennart, Revised by Harvey Fierstein
Music: Julie Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Director: Michael Mayer
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Fanny Brice was a phenomenon of the American stage in the early 20th Century. A natural comedienne and talented singer, she used her ‘funny face’ and ungainly movements to great effect, appearing in the Ziegfeld follies throughout the 1920s. Her personal life, however, was less successful, and Funny Girl seeks to look at her career through the lens of her marriage to gambler Nick Arnstein.
The musical itself has a somewhat chequered history requiring many revisions and an extended out-of-town run before its eventual opening on Broadway in 1964: having been produced by her son-in-law, it is perhaps no surprise that as an account of Brice’s life it is somewhat sanitised; as a piece of musical theatre it remains something of a curate’s egg. Funny Girl contains excellent performances, most notably by Sheridan Smith as Fanny and Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein; there are glorious musical numbers and questions posed that are still pertinent today; but the book, even after its revision by Harvey Fierstein, doesn’t come up to the same standard, which means that the characters just don’t engage one emotionally enough.
Young Fanny Brice is by no means the archetypal stage star – her goofball self-effacing comedy doesn’t really fit in with a culture that values beauty above talent: If A Girl Isn’t Pretty still resonates in today’s image-obsessed post-Photoshop world. But Fanny, supported by her mother and her extended Jewish ‘family’, perseveres and is taken on by a local theatre. It is here she is first seen by Nick Arnstein, a wealthy gambler with an immediate mutual fascination. Nick earns some brownie points from that extended family by attending their after-show block party before disappearing.
Both Arnstein and Brice immerse themselves in their work before meeting again months later in Baltimore where Brice is on tour with the Ziegfeld Follies, and where they spend time together. And here is another major and contemporary theme – the loneliness and isolation that successful and driven people can experience, leading to the beautifully rendered People and Brice’s decision to run away from the show to seek a more normal life with Arnstein in the show-stopping Don’t Rain On My Parade.
But how will Nick react to the single-minded, stifling love that Fanny has for him? How does it feel when she can casually write a huge cheque to invest in his scheme that inevitably goes bad? It’s been obvious to the audience that Nick isn’t quite the man Fanny thinks he is, and events ultimately play out rather tragically for them.
There can be no doubt that all performances, and especially those of Smith and Campbell, hit the spot squarely. Smith pushes the kooky button with just the right amount of pressure, and Campbell has a superbly rich speaking and singing voice that suits his character to a T. Michael Mayer’s direction, supported by designer Michael Pavelka’s minimalist set that includes mirrored wings (representing the introspection of Brice and Arnstein, perhaps), ensures that the flow is smooth and the laughs come thick and fast – one just can’t help rooting for Brice while simultaneously knowing that Arnstein is too good to be true: no decent man could be that smooth, surely? Our sympathies are instead directed towards her long-standing friend, Eddie Ryan (played in an understated manner by Joshua Lay) who carries a torch for Brice that burns brightly even in the whirlwind that is her romance with Arnstein.
The supporting cast work admirably within the book’s constraints, with special mention going to the trio of Yiddisher Golden Girls, Mrs Brice, Mrs Strakosh and Mrs Meeker (Rachel Izen, Myra Sands and Zoë Ann Bown respectively) who bring moments of great light relief as they play poker and set the world to rights together.
Overall, a night of memorable performances and set-pieces that will live on in the memory, but one not quite as engaging as the story deserves to be. You certainly won’t come away disappointed afterwards – the universal standing ovation at press night is evidence of that – but there might be that nagging feeling that somehow there could be even more.
Runs until 13 May 2017 and on tour | Image: Johann Persson