Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Book: Isobel Lennart, revised by Harvey Fierstein
Director: Michael Mayer
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
The hugely talented comedienne and actor, Sheridan Smith, takes on the lead role in Funny Girl at Milton Keynes this week. She has been much awaited after rave reviews in the West End. Very few have taken on this role since Barbra Streisand defined it in the 1964 Broadway production and subsequently in the much-loved film of the same name, but Smith truly makes it her own – and with such style and class.
So the story goes that Fanny Brice from Lower East Side in New York is a stage-struck youngster who, despite having been told she is an ‘ugly duckling’, firmly believes she has the talent and the ambition to make it. She decides to show everyone that her star quality will shine on Broadway to fulfil her American dream and thus begins her crazy journey through vaudeville and burlesque. But as Fanny’s star is on the ascendant with her big break in the legendary Ziegfeld Follies, her shaky marriage to the charismatic but unreliable ‘entrepreneur’/gambler, Nick Arnstein, falters. Very much in love with Nick and prepared to follow him wherever his business takes him, Fanny has some difficult choices to make.
Sheridan Smith does what seems apparently impossible with the role of Fanny Brice. If Fania Borach, the real person on whom this musical is based, were to see the show she would doubtless be very impressed and touched. Smith brings out the contradictions, the grim determination, the vulnerability and the gutsy aspects of Fanny Brice and she can do that with just a few facial expressions, let alone her powerful singing voice and her comedic genius. There is such an authenticity in her performance which draws the audience in. Her rendition of People is amazing and spine-tingly moving.
Chris Peluso gives us Nick Arnstein, Fanny’s charming husband, and is utterly convincing. He shows us the devoted lover versus the risk-taking loner in all its duality. Some super interactions between the couple include their lovely and quite quirky duet You are woman, I am man. Peluso has a superbly rich tone to his voice, almost reminiscent of Howard Keel, if not as deep. Joshua Lay’s Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s long-term pal and torch-bearer, is spot on. A very natural performance and what a tap dancer. Jennifer Harding’s Emma, Fanny’s aide, is a nicely understated performance while Nigel Barber in the role of Florenz Ziegfeld delivers the assured and powerful Broadway showman with ease and charm.
The trio of Mrs Strakosh and Mrs Meeker, the neighbours, and Fanny’s mum, Rose Brice, certainly work tightly together and are totally believable as the gaggle of Jewish ladies fond of a card game or three. They are played respectively by Myra Sands, Zoe Ann Bown and Rachel Izen. Michael Mayer’s sharp and thoughtful direction, along with the energy and joy of the entire cast means that this is a complete piece, not merely a vehicle for Sheridan Smith, as wonderful as she is.
Funny Girl is the most classic of musicals which depicts perfectly Broadway in the early 1900s as much as it shows us the genius of comedy that was Fanny Brice. It balances beautifully gusto, verve and real emotion and includes those classic songs like I’m the Greatest Star and the power-house number Don’t Rain on My Parade. The audience rises as one to its feet at the end in a standing ovation and rightly so.
Runs until 4 March 2017 and on tour| Image: Johann Persson