Friday, 4 December 2015

Theatre review: Funny Girl

The show hasn't even had its first preview yet, and already it's sold out: It happens to Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and it happened for real when the Menier's revival of her life story sold out within hours of going on sale, largely thanks to the star power of Sheridan Smith. The West End transfer has already been announced and extended once and a Broadway run discussed, so we're very much in "critic-proof" territory. So what's left to say about Michael Mayer's production, which the Menier were allegedly going to shelve if Smith hadn't agreed to star? Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart's musical version of a true story has had some new tweaks to the book from Harvey Fierstein, but remains familiar to anyone who's seen the film version, in which Barbra Streisand's performance became so well-known it's made producers steer clear of reviving the show until now.

Fanny Brice (Smith) is a talented singer and comedian but, short and physically awkward, doesn't have the traditional beauty that'll give her a place on the early 20th century Broadway stage. She turns this to her advantage, using comedy to catch the attention of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (Bruce Montague,) and become a huge star.

But while, in the part of her life the show explores at least, her career only goes from strength to strength, her private life is more of a rollercoaster. Smitten with professional gambler Nicky Arnstein (Darius Danesh Darius Davros Darius Campbell,) their courtship is a complicated one, and things only get worse once they're married.

There's an enthusiastic cast supporting Smith but this is such a star vehicle there's precious few moments for anyone to steal the show from her - only Marilyn Cutts as Fanny's mother, with Gay Soper and Valda Aviks as her poker buddies, get to make any kind of impact. Smith is of course more than up to the task of carrying the show and shines particularly in the many comic scenes, both "onstage" with the Ziegfeld Follies and in her awkward love scene with Nicky, "You Are Woman, I Am Man." She was always also going to stamp her identity on the role to avoid comparisons with Streisand, and it's interesting that in the musical numbers she does this by avoiding belting everything out, even in the big numbers "People" and "Don't Rain On My Parade" - she focuses on the emotion rather than the big note, only really letting rip for the finale. For me it's a successful approach, but I wonder how a Broadway audience, with their love of the big, showy vocal performance, will respond to this much more understated style.

Mayer's production itself is pretty old-fashioned, and does little to disguise the fact that the show's top-heavy, with all the good numbers in the first act. It's also clearly designed with bigger theatres in mind, Michael Pavelka's set a bit too wide for the Menier. I took my sister for her Christmas present, as the film is one of her favourites (she watched it so many times when we were kids that I could quote half the lines, never mind her.) It took her a while to adapt to Sheridan Smith's very different performance to the one she was used to, but once she got over that she loved it. For me, it's a show that's never not enjoyable, but holds no surprises either.

Funny Girl by Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, Isobel Lennart, Ann Bissett and Harvey Fierstein is booking until the 5th of March at the Menier Chocolate Factory (returns only,) then from the 9th of April to the 10th of September 2016 at the Savoy Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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