The entire run sold out in a single morning. A transfer into the West End was booked and announced before it even began previews. The (very) few available tickets appear to be commanding vastly inflated sums of money on StubHub. Is Sheridan Smith the ‘greatest star’, as she sings in her first number in this triumphant revival of Funny Girl? Maybe not the greatest ever, but she’s up there. It’s her name that sold all those tickets, and she’s worth it.
As for the show itself, there’s possibly a reason it hasn’t been seen in the West End since 1966 – I mean, other than the supposedly-indelible performance given by a certain Ms. Streisand. Funny Girl tells the story of the rise to fame of comedian/actor/Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, and despite some electrifying music from Jule Styne, the show itself is very much a second-tier Golden Age musical. The problem is partly the subject matter: there’s a great deal about Fanny Brice that is fascinating, but her rise to fame was by all accounts remarkably uneventful, and Isobel Lennart‘s book and Bob Merrill‘s bland lyics barely look beneath the surface. Brice’s marriage to professional gambler Nicky Arnstein is the basis for a great deal of the show’s plot, particularly in the second act, but the account given in the show is more than somewhat fictionalised, and you don’t have to do a great deal of research to find that the truth would probably have been more interesting. There’s little insight on display – simply a somewhat melodramatic retelling of Brice’s rise to fame that wouldn’t look out of place in a TV movie-of-the-week. For this production, Harvey Fierstein has been brought in to sprinkle his own very special brand of magic stardust over the material by rewriting Lennart’s tissue-thin, predictable book, which means the show now has a tissue-thin, predictable book that’s slightly different from the original one. It’s not that most of the changes make the show either better or worse – it’s simply that it gained the reputation it has because of a few thrilling musical numbers, and because the original production launched a thrilling new star. Depth is not the point; with or without rewrites, it’s never going to be Gypsy.
And yet this production is a must-see, and a genuinely exciting, joyous theatrical experience. To say that Sheridan Smith makes the role of Fanny Brice her own is an understatement. Yes, this is a spectacular star turn, but it’s a very different take on the role from Streisand’s iconic performance (we’ve all seen the film, haven’t we?). Smith is a superb actor with remarkable comic timing, but her secret weapon here, as it was in Legally Blonde, is her odd combination of girl-next-door looks, warmth, vulnerability, and charm. Her gift is her ability to bring an audience into her world, to make you feel like you’re watching your best friend, and to make you, as the show puts it, laugh with her, not at her. She isn’t American, or Jewish, and she is (more than) pretty, but it doesn’t matter in the least: she’s a brilliant physical comedian – her rubber-limbed attempts to evade seduction in You Are Woman, I Am Man are hilarious – and her extraordinarily open, malleable face is more than capable of encompassing the thirty-six facial expressions Fanny lays claim to at the top of the show. True, she isn’t a singer in Streisand’s league – who is? – but she delivers fine, feisty renditions of Styne’s two big bon-bons, Don’t Rain On My Parade and The Music That Makes Me Dance. It’s her quieter moments, though, that are the most surprising. She turns People – a glorious melody tied to a thuddingly banal lyric – into a wrenching soliloquy about Fanny’s inability to connect with anyone other than an audience, and finds all the heartbreak (and then some) in Who Are You Now?, which (apropos of nothing in particular) has always been my favourite song in the score. And actually, in this production, it’s the only revision that improves on the original: the song is reimagined as a duet between Fanny and Nick which then segues into a reprise of People, and the arrangement (by Alan Williams) is truly lovely.
The supporting cast are somewhat hampered by the writing, which tends to reserve what meat there is for the leading role. This production gives slightly more material, in the form of a not-very-good song called Temporary Arrangement that was cut from the original Broadway production, to the actor playing Nick; Darius Campbell sings it (and everything else) very well, but there’s a reason it wasn’t used the first time around. Campbell is tall, handsome, charming, and has an excellent voice – which is good, because that’s just about all the book gives him to play. There’s a warmly funny (and in places surprisingly acrobatic) turn from Joel Montague as Fanny’s childhood friend/would-be suitor Eddie, and an impeccable, moving performance from the always-wonderful Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother. The ensemble are terrific, although they could use a little more space to get the most out of Lynne Page’s clever, funny choreography – the stage at the Menier is tiny – but this is Smith’s show.
Fortunately, while the material is sometimes less than stellar, the production rises to her level. In Michael Mayer’s staging, the show moves fluidly – not always easy to achieve in the Menier, whose stage imposes a long, long list of technical/physical constraints. Michael Pavelka’s set takes us onto the stage of New York’s Winter Garden via a forced-perspective photographic backdrop of the auditorium, and uses a pair of travelators running the width of the stage to help Mayer and Page approximate cinematic dissolves between scenes. It’s an elegant solution – thanks also to Mark Henderson’s lighting and Matthew Wright’s beautiful period costumes, the show looks great, and you never get the sense, as you sometimes do in this venue, that compromises have been made in order to squeeze the production into the space. That said, it has clearly been designed and directed with a transfer to a larger theatre in mind; it should sit very nicely at the Savoy when it moves there in the spring, but there’s an undeniable thrill to seeing Smith’s dazzling performance in close-up. There’s a tight ten-piece band somewhere backstage, and Chris Walker’s new orchestrations sound surprisingly lush given that there are only ten musicians (a small number for this kind of score, but a huge number for this kind of venue). You don’t quite get the brassy blare that characterises the Broadway cast recording or the film soundtrack, but that’s the trade-off you make when you stage a (relatively) big musical in a theatre like the Menier. This material is not, as I said, one of the first-tier Broadway classics; this production, however, makes as good a case for it as you could imagine. It’s tremendous fun, and Smith is magnificent.
In the end, though, perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement here will turn out to be less about her own (superb) performance, and more about the show itself. For a long time, the received wisdom seems to have been that Funny Girl is not viable without a singer of Streisand’s calibre, or that Streisand’s performance is impossible to match. Smith proves, loudly and clearly, that you don’t have to have a one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle singing voice in order to succeed in the role, and in doing so, she also unlocks a door: it isn’t a great show, but it’s certainly a great role, and there’s more than one valid way to approach it. Smith doesn’t eclipse Streisand’s performance, and nor should she – it’s readily available via the DVD of the film, and it’s wonderful – but she does manage to erase it, at least temporarily: watching her, she simply makes you forget anyone else ever played the role. Given how familiar Streisand’s performance has become, that’s an astonishing achievement; if this revival helps bring the show out from under her shadow, it can only be a good thing.