Although I would in no way class myself as a musicals expert or even aficionado, I guess down the years I’ve seen most of the classics. One which I haven’t caught up with until now is Funny Girl. That’s probably because I’ve never particularly cared for Barbra Streisand with whom this show is invariably connected. Indeed, the comment is often made that without someone of the stature of La Streisand the show becomes unthinkable.
Well, think again because Sheridan Smith gives a performance of stellar proportions in a show which could have been written to suit her talents but was actually first seen on Broadway in 1964. Smith takes on the role of Fanny Brice an American comedienne who was the star turn of the Ziegfield Follies in the early part of the twentieth century. Brice bucked the trend for glamour and sophistication in the Ziegfield shows by playing everything for laughs. As well as her career, Funny Girl also focuses on Brice’s turbulent relationship with professional gambler and “businessman” Nicky Arnstein. Eclipsed by Brice’s success, Arnstein is portrayed as unhappy at being a kept man and making reckless decisions in order to try and stand on his own two feet. History’s view is that he was rather more of a calculating ne’er do well and a sponger but that, of course, would not suit the rom-com credentials of the show.
For the storyline itself is full of hackneyed situations and showbiz cliché – the struggle to the top, smiling through the tears, the dressing room heartache, the show must go on type thing. Isobel Lennart’s book is as thin as tissue paper and even a revamp by Harvey Fierstein does little to introduce any acid into the proceedings. The songs of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill are good – indeed a couple (People and Don’t Rain On My Parade) are great, but it is only those two that are running through my head as I write this. Characterisation as written is also generally thin and again relies heavily on stereotypes: the dishy charmer, the Jewish mother, the loyal dresser, the no nonsense impresario.
However, Sheridan Smith makes up for any shortcomings with a performance which blazes with intensity and songs that are delivered from the soul. Admittedly I found the gurning and silly voices a bit off putting at first but as they all seem to have been part of Brice’s act, as well as a key aspect of her defences against the world, one can learn to live with them. For someone who was such a bright cookie when it came to her onstage persona it seems even more incredible that she should fall for the man of surfaces which Arnstein undoubtedly was. Darius Campbell as the latter has an easy smooth charm about him which is just right for the character but, in the main, he comes across as a cipher which the scriptwriters should have spent more time on. Rachel Izen as Fanny’s mother does a nice line in deprecating and self-deprecating humour but again, I could not escape the notion that the character is somewhat underwritten.
The overall effect is that when Brice/Smith is not on stage (and fortunately that is rarely) you find yourself just waiting for her return because you know that things will then liven up. I’m not sure whether the slapstick routines (the pregnant bride, the roly-poly soldier) were based on Brice’s real act or were just of a type. Whatever their derivation, these show within a show sequences stand out as highlights and Michael Mayer’s busy style of directing pays dividends at these points. For the rest the episodic nature of the show means that we are, literally, all over the place with killer lines like “Well, here we are in Monte Carlo” left to position us in time and space. And why is it that every ‘backstage at the show’ sequence features someone wheeling a costume rail through the melee? We get it.
While I’m glad to have ticked Funny Girl off my ‘to see’ list that is largely because of Sheridan Smith’s outstanding performance which raises her to the same level of stardom as the character she is portraying. She seems to be fast heading for national treasure status and as she’s not yet 40 we can look forward to great things to come. Here’s a suggestion – how about a show revolving round Fanny Brice’s spiritual heir, Lucille Ball?
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