The overture to Funny Girl, in this first revival since its first iconic run in the sixties, is accompanied by a dance of pink-blue spectrum of lighting colours over the gauze curtain. It’s a visual treat as we settle into the twenties, art deco, showbiz setting with Jule Styne’s (Gypsy) charming score. The musical is all about making it in show business – populated with producers, chorus girls, boy dancers, aspiring dance directors, and fretting mothers. It’s about business too – the money of theatre, the wages, and celebrity riches.
Sheridan Smith plays Fanny Brice – our ‘funny girl’ – with nervous sincerity, cheeky humour and innocent flirtation. She is a joy to watch. Barbra Streisand made the role famous and in return the part secured her stardom, but Smith seems to take to it without affectation or any weight of expectation.
Smith is immediately compelling, opening the show with a hint of the finale, seducing us with pouts and glances in a bulb-lit frame (the guise of a mirror). The transformation from this premonition of her final fate in furs and jewels, back to her Brooklyn beginnings with girlish plaits and a baggy linen two-piece is quite astonishing. Smith brings a striking sense of comic survival and innocent daring to the real character of Fanny Brice. She rises magnificently out of awkward beginnings in a chorus line audition where she’s too small, too dowdy and too inelegant, to becoming a comic starlet and finally the comedic leading lady of Broadway.
Fanny is completely unafraid of social faux pas and avoids submitting to accepted behaviours with knowing self-commentary. Her bold rebuttals of Broadway’s biggest stars, like her producer Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld, and eventual husband – gambler Nick Arnstein – enable Sheridan to wittingly capture the character’s aspiration and mischief. At a high-blown, showy dinner date with Nick she manages to dextrously divert his advances. She wise-cracks her way through the conventions of chivalry and courting. Real pain and sorrow shows through the self-belief as we progress, and it’s an utter treat to observe Smith so closely in the 150-seat space of the Menier.
Where the female role is charged high with drama, command, and capability, the male storyline with Nick is stayed and simplistic. The notion of his being a kept man and consequent rebellion against his wife’s success seem petty. More unfortunately, the script presents Nick’s reactions as perfectly right. To ‘be a man’ he must make his own millions. One number chimes “I am man. You are woman,” and the reductionism unfortunately fits some of the characterisation
Where that simplicity doesn’t matter is that we completely believe Fanny to be besotted with him. Darius Campbell pulls off devilish charm with archetypal confidence, although unlike Nick’s perfectly ruffled shirt there’s not much to decorate the two-dimensional smooth camaraderie and dodgy deals. The production makes much of his towering height, a good foot above little Fanny. Their duet ‘Who Are You Now?’ lacks grit, despite two great voices.
Marilyn Cutts dazzles as Brice’s mother with youthful moves and smart tricks, not least in poker, to gain social standing in the local neighbourhood where ‘married’ and ‘working’ daughters are clearly distinguished. Buddies Gay Soper and Valda Aviks make up the rest of her card table and never fail to amuse.
In the end, we’re “people who need people” and the people in this production – with a little help from glitzy costumes and Lynne Page’s vivacious dance routines – make it thrilling, funny and glamorous. The already highly-anticipated transfer of Michael Mayer’s production to the Savoy Theatre may perhaps extend across the pond… Sheridan has played her cards right and it has Broadway written all over its parade.
Funny Girl is playing at Menier Chocolate Factory until 5 March 2016. It transfers to the Savoy Theatre from April 2016. For more information and tickets, see Menier Chocolate Factory website. Photo by Marc Brenner.