Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. That’s how it’s billed, and rightly so, as it was very definitely Ms Smith’s presence that caused this actually rather imperfect 1963 Jule Styne show to sell out at The Menier Chocolate Factory last autumn in record time, and to announce a transfer into the West End before the production had even opened.
This is its first revival since the original 1966 London production which had, a couple of years earlier in New York, already made a star of Barbra Streisand who then memorably committed her performance to celluloid in the 1968 movie of the same name, winning an Oscar for her trouble.
Streisand is a hard act to follow. So what of Ms Smith? Is she any good? Well, quite frankly, yes. Though this is a production which has an extremely strong ensemble and supporting cast too, even if the revisions to the book my Harvey Fierstein don’t go all the way in solving the various problems that the show is lumbered with, more of which later.
Officially set in 1927, in Fanny’s dressing room at The New Amsterdam Theatre, and largely told in flashback, Funny Girl is a heavily sanitised biographical love story loosely based on the life of Fanny Brice; comedienne and star of the Ziegfeld Follies.
It’s a tale of local girl makes good. In this case Fanny (Ms Smith in superlative comedic form who never fails to exude a warmth to the audience that makes you think she’s doing her whole performance just for you) the daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, wants to have a life in the theatre and, coming to terms with the fact that she’s too short and not pretty enough to be a dancer, realises that comedy is her thing.
Through diligent hard work, and seemingly a lot of good luck, she works her way up to a place in the Ziegfeld Follies, but not before she’s met Nick (Nicky) Arnstein (Darius Campbell who with his silkily smooth vocals, and suave good looks finally comes of age in this role as a genuine West End leading man), the man she eventually ends up marrying.
Although portrayed as the love of her life here for the exigencies of dramatic function, and as something of a loveable rogue, in reality Arnstein was one of four husbands Brice had (though he was the father of her two children) and was already married to another woman when he met and fell in love with her. He was also a confidence trickster and swindler, considerably more errant in his ways than the rascal of the show, having already done a stretch in New York’s Sing Sing correctional facility.
There are some nice supporting performance, notably from Joel Montague as Eddie Ryan, who teaches Fanny her craft, and the three elderly Jewish ladies, Mrs Strakosh, Mrs Meeker, and Mrs Brice, played by Gay Soper, Valda Aviks, and Marilyn Cutts respectively.
As I said though, the show does have its problems. The best numbers (Fanny’s songs ‘People’ and the Act One closer ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’) are in Act One, and even with Harvey Fierstein’s tinkering the plot in Act Two is some pretty thin gruel. Dramatically it’s difficult to see what obstacles Fanny has to overcome in life to attain her goals – other than having a talent as a comedienne, and not being tall enough to be a dancer – and it’s to the credit both of Ms Smith as Brice and director Michael Mayer that these flaws are pretty much drowned out in the cavalcade on show.
As an interesting bit of trivia, the original lyricist on the show was one Stephen Sondheim. It’s interesting to think how different the show might have been had Sondheim moved straight on to Funny Girl from a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and not withdrawn in order to write his 9-performance flop, Anyone Can Whistle.