Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Book: Isobel Lennart
Revised Book: Harvey Fierstein
Director: Michael Mayer
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Funny Girl is the (mostly) true story of the rise and first marriage of Broadway Vaudeville (and later film) star Fanny Brice. The musical dates from 1964, and its star Barbra Streisand went on to recreate the role in the Oscar-winning 1968 film, which is one the greatest musicals of the later Hollywood era. This production, originally created by the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015, went on to a successful run at the Savoy Theatre in 2016 and is now touring the UK with its original star – not Streisand – but new British stage favourite Sheridan Smith.
Fanny Brice was an extraordinarily-gifted comic and singer with the ability to deliver silly and serious songs with equal intent. To recreate her energy and star power demands a leading lady with considerable talent and luminescence of their own. Sheridan Smith does not fail in this score, delivering a vigorous bravura performance full of snappy, vivid comedy and genuine emotion. She doesn’t miss a beat in extracting all the humour and weight of the material: and this is a show packed with memorable songs and ensemble numbers.
Smith is supported by an impressively lively and characterful cast. Chris Peluso does a decent job of fleshing out the slightly-unlikeable cipher that is Brice’s great love Nick Arnstein: a gambler and conman who undoubtedly loved her but couldn’t handle his own financial failure in the face of her unstoppable success.
Brice’s life is anchored by her strong roots in Brooklyn’s Henry Street. And her mother, played by Rachel Izen, and neighbours Mrs Strakosh (Myra Sands) and Mrs Meeker (Zoe Ann Bown) are played with tremendous warmth and humour. But the entire cast are strong from the featured parts to the Follies chorus line.
The staging is basically simple but evocative: Michael Pavelka’s set doesn’t move but the use of furniture, props, lighting (Mark Henderson), reflection, projection, and the occasional curtain, effortlessly propels the audience through the narrative – the show is essentially set in Fanny’s dressing room at the Ziegfeld Follies and in flashback through Fanny’s remembrances of how she came to be a star waiting for her husband to return from a spell in jail before opening night of a new show. But her mother’s saloon on Henry Street, theatre stages, railway stations, drawing rooms and restaurants effortlessly and unfussily appear and dissolve as Fanny reminisces at her dressing table. Effective use of costumes serves to propel us through time from around 1910 up to the early 1930s.
It’s fair to say that the first half is a lot more fun than the second but that’s the arc of the narrative – and where most of the greatest hits are to be found. If A Girl Isn’t Pretty does a fine job of setting the scene. Smith has already charmed the audience with her comedy but her first feature number I’m The Greatest Star quickly establishes that she has the voice to nail this. You Are Woman, I Am Man with Peloso is hilarious and People is delivered with all its layers of nuance, subtlety and power achingly in place. A storming Don’t Rain On My Parade has the audience completely smitten by the time the first act curtain falls. By the time she reprises this for the finale everyone knows they are in the presence of a major and delightful star and have witnessed a colourful and pleasingly-effective version of a classic but not often seen masterpiece of musical theatre.
This show is still so fresh from its West End run that this tour feels like an event. And Sheridan Smith makes it an especially memorable one.
Runs until 25 February 2017 | Image: Johan Persson