I don’t wish to speculate on precisely why Funny Girl The Musical hasn’t been performed in the West End for very nearly 50 years, until now. But I will say this: the story is so simplified and embellished that the producers of this delightful revival, a transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory, felt it appropriate to publish a feature-length article called “The True Story of Fanny Brice” in the show’s programme, lest anyone thought what they saw and heard from the stage of the Savoy Theatre was sufficient as a biographical account.
This does not take away from what is a decent and largely dignified production – after all, it is Funny Girl The Musical and not Funny Girl The Documentary. Inescapably, though, it’s a theatre production that’s about someone’s life in the theatre, or, to put it almost tersely, a drama about drama. Or, for those who prefer to be facetious, as one gentleman in the audience was with his partner before the show started, and responded, when she asked what the show was about, “It’s ‘about’ 2 hours and 45 minutes long.”
Fanny Brice (Sheridan Smith) is so very human, and Smith does extremely well to capture the full range of personal emotions, from ecstatic to devastated. But, this being a musical, the story has a splendid flourish of a finale, even if it feels rather incomplete. It need not have gone as far as Les Miserables, which goes right into the central character’s entry into the afterlife, let alone Carousel, which not only ventures right into it but sends Billy Bigelow back to earth for a day. But Funny Girl ends very suddenly, and I venture to suggest I felt as slightly short-changed as I did when I finally got around to seeing it at the Menier earlier this year.
By that point, the announcement of the Savoy transfer had already been made, leaving the Menier audiences witnessing a full-blown Broadway musical on an inadequately sized off-West End stage, and imagining how glorious it would be in a significantly larger space. I was eventually impressed with the result of the bigger set. The ensemble numbers seem more graceful than chaotic and I found it a lot easier to follow the narrative as scene changes were more pronounced.
I can’t comment on how Smith compares with Barbra Streisand, not having even been around in 1966 to have seen that production at the Prince of Wales Theatre. What I can say is that I disagree with the notion that Funny Girl can’t work properly without Streisand. Smith stamps her own authority on the role, though I couldn’t help detect that she was on occasion playing to the audience, which included some of her loyal fanbase. It had been toned down since the Menier run – my theory is that the bigger auditorium made it more difficult to interact directly with theatregoers. In its revised form, it added a little extra spice to proceedings and wasn’t distracting in the slightest.
While it’s bigger and better, it still seems to limp through some of the second half, which includes a comedy number involving women soldiers that felt too long. But Smith powers on as Fanny, with seemingly boundless energy. Her interactions with Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell) are always credible, whether they are being flirtatious or confrontational; ‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’ is particularly comical as Nick charms his way into Fanny’s life. Campbell does what he can with such a relatively square character; his is an admirably engaging interpretation of the role.
Of the rest of the company, Marilyn Cutts (Mrs Brice) and Eddie Ryan (Joel Montague) stood out for me. The former was a most likeable mother figure, taking pride in her daughter’s achievements whilst being oh-so-slightly envious of Fanny’s success; the latter a gentle man and a gentleman, with plenty of heart. Mrs Meeker (Valda Aviks) and Mrs Strakosh (Gay Soper) are worthy supporting characters, with occasionally acidic wit but always the most genial of friends. Theo Jamieson’s smooth and assured musical direction keeps the show flowing, and both the Overture and Entr’acte were a joy to listen to.
But it’s Sheridan Smith’s parade, and I’m not going to rain on it – it’s an outstanding performance from a most versatile and engaging leading lady.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Following a critically acclaimed and record-breaking sold-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Funny Girl, starring multi award-winning stage and screen star Sheridan Smith, is back in London’s West End for the first time since the original Broadway hit transferred in 1966. 50 years on, the hit musical is now showing at the Savoy Theatre for a strictly limited run until 8 October 2016.
Featuring some of the most iconic songs in film and theatre history, including “People” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade”, this musical classic tells the fascinating and bitter-sweet story of Fanny Brice (Sheridan Smith), whose vocal talents and comedic ability see her rise from Brooklyn music hall singer to Broadway star, and her tempestuous relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein (Darius Campbell).
This bold new production, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, a book by Isobel Lennart from an original story by Miss Lennart, with revisions by Harvey Fierstein, is directed by Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch & Spring Awakening on Broadway), and promises to be the must-see musical of 2016.
Booking Until: 8th Oct 2016
Strand, London, WC2R 0ET