Director: Michael Mayer
Book: Isobel Lennart
Revised Book: Harvey Fierstein
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Reviewer: Chris Oldham
Not long after completing its engagement at London’s Savoy Theatre, Funny Girl arrives at the Bristol Hippodrome this week. And with Sheridan Smith at the top of bill, expectation couldn’t be higher.
Fanny Brice (Smith) is a young Jewish girl growing up in New York in the 1920s at a time when Vaudeville was where stars were born. Plucky and ambitious, Fanny prefers to laugh at herself than take herself too seriously; and with the help of entrepreneur-turned-lover Nick (Chris Peluso), and her friend Eddie (Joshua Lay); and with the unwavering support of her mother (Rachel Izen), her infectious brand of humour and talent catapult her into the spotlight. But fame, as always, comes at a cost.
Michael Pavelka’s set design frames the stage with mirrored partitions and angular back-drops. But aside from some multi-faceted props – a trunk turning into a sofa, a hamper turning into a piano – that’s as flashy as things get. Instead director Michael Mayer chooses to truly let the music and choreography do the talking. Whether it’s Fanny’s first solo performance of Cornet Man, or well-known emotional staples People and Don’t Rain On My Parade, the sharp, witty, playful lyrics – often delivered at breathless speed – are a joy to take in; with a moment in stand-out number You Are Woman, I Am Man, temporarily bringing the stage to a standstill and the delighted audience almost to its feet.
And then there’s Smith. Showered in accolades for both her work on stage and screen, and fresh from the show’s West End run, it’s a privilege to see her travelling with the touring production. Whether she’s playing clumsy and goofy, or letting Fanny have a stab at demure and alluring, she’s mesmerising; so naturally funny, so effortlessly real, that she could carry a show of half the calibre and still make it look good.
Luckily she doesn’t have to. Strong support from Peluso, Lay, and Izen in particular, as well as an energetic company on fine form means she has all the tools she needs to shine even brighter.
Despite upbeat numbers like Who Taught Her Everything She Knows, and Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat, the second act takes a slower, more sombre, introspective turn, with the subversive mayhem of the latter suddenly feeling a little tired. There’s a point to it perhaps – as the applause fades and Fanny is left all alone in her dressing room once again, the contrast of her life on and off stage is never more starkly realised. As Fanny and Nick’s marriage hits troubled waters, there’s ample opportunity for Smith to dig deep for the emotion of a star at the peak of her fame while her life is falling apart, but it’s a long way – sometimes a little too far – from the charged hilarity of Act One.
At its core, Funny Girl is a classic, classy musical; filled with romance, glitz, honesty, and humour. Not quite a one-woman showcase, but then even a star like Smith needs a minute to change costume; and there’s a lot to love even when she’s not around.
Runs until 25 March 2017 then continues to tour | Image: Johan Persson