'Funny Girl': Theater Review

Funny Girl - H 2015
Courtesy of Marc Brenner
No second-hand rose, Smith's performance puts Streisand in the shade.

Sheridan Smith stars as Fanny Brice in director Michael Mayer's London staging of the rarely revived Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical.

The received wisdom is that there have been so few successful revivals of Funny Girl because no one could ever measure up to the show's original leading lady, Barbra Streisand. She played singer-comedian Fanny Brice when the bio-musical opened in 1964 and again for the glossy 1968 film version, and through concert performances and recordings she came to own, in the vernacular sense, certain songs from the score — most notably "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" — so thoroughly that some might have assumed she held the copyright.

Fifty years on, it looks like that emotional copyright has expired, annulled by a game-changing performance from British stage star Sheridan Smith in the snazzy, kinetic London revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. The run is already sold and bound for the West End in the spring of 2016; a Broadway transfer seems inevitable. (A Broadway revival was announced for 2012, with Bartlett Sher directing Lauren Ambrose in the starring role, but that $12 million production fell apart when investors dropped out before the show's Los Angeles tryout.)

Smith executes a restoration job on the role, stripping it back to the brownstone brickwork to find a characterization that feels far closer to the actual Fanny Brice, a Brooklyn belter with the kind of quick, pickle-barrel wit one would expect from a saloon-keeper's daughter who became a star of Ziegfeld's Follies. Of course, Streisand was actually born in Brooklyn and Smith in boggy Lincolnshire, and yet, despite the current obsession with essentialism and cultural appropriation, Smith proves to be far and away the more persuasively Brice-like of the two. Her voice can't match Streisand for tonal purity (whose could?), but even the occasional rasp in her throat seems aptly in character. Moreover, Smith is by some distance funnier, subtler and equipped with greater range (at one point Fanny brags she has 36 different facial expressions, and she tries out every one here). She can even cry on cue, and her welling up on stage during the finale was infectious at the performance caught for this review.

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The fact that Sheridan and director Michael Mayer (known for his Broadway work on Hedwig and the Angry InchSpring Awakening and American Idiot) have managed to make this material so emotionally compelling is even more impressive given that the book, written originally by Isobel Lennart, is the weakest part of the package. Revision is credited to Harvey Fierstein for this production, but the inherent structural shoddiness, whitewash approach to biography and careless disinterest in characters other than Fanny are probably big reasons why the show has been so infrequently revisited over the years. Even in 1964, the sexual politics must have seemed antediluvian. Fanny is effectively punished for emasculating her professional gambler husband Nick Arnstein (played here by Darius Campbell) by earning more money than he does.

A recent Latin American production gave Fanny a gender reassignment and turned her into a queen pining for a butch bit of rough who lets her down repeatedly and tragically dumps her, thereby drawing out subtexts always latent in the story and augmenting the original show's queer appeal. But while Mayer has chosen to play things superficially straight, there's a palpable knowing quality about the staging and the line readings that adds a fairy dusting of irony throughout. Surely Eddie (Joel Montague, a delight) is protesting just a little too much when he reminds Fanny he's a "red-blooded American male." Even the chorus line, mincing and mugging it up with their parody renditions of Zeigfeld Girl-femininity, seem in on some sly joke.

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The only one who doesn't seem to be having a bit of a snigger behind his hand is Campbell. Tall and strapping enough to make a fine comic foil to Smith's reet-petite stature and a pleasant singer, he doesn't have the acting prowess to give his character a commensurate rethink the way Smith does with Fanny. Arnstein remains a cipher, and audiences don't need to read up on Wikipedia beforehand to sense that the real Nick must have been a lot more of a scumbag than the script is willing to allow. At least he and Smith have the chemistry, enhanced by Lynne Page's slinky choreography, to suggest that there must have been enough hot-monkey sex going on to explain what she saw in him. Clearly, they were the Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil of their generation.

Page's ingenious moves — all sharp angles and intricate aerial loops, supplemented by some nifty footwork on moving walkways — is reason enough to see the show. Same goes for Michael Pavelka's set design, a shimmering hall of mirrors (some real, some fake like the dressing table Fanny sits at in the story's framing device) and projections on scrims. The intimacy of the Menier's setting will be missed when the show graduates to a larger venue, although perhaps the transition will improve the acoustics, since even with amplification the performers risked being drowned out by the orchestra.

Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Cast: Sheridan Smith, Darius Campbell, Marilyn Cutts, Joel Montague, Bruce Montague, Maurice Lane
Book: Isobel Lennart, Harvey Fierstein
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Director: Michael Mayer
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Set designer: Michael Pavelka
Costume designer: Matthew Wright
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Richard Brooker
Musical supervisor and arrangements: Alan Williams
A Menier Chocolate Factory, Sonia Friedman Productions, Scott Landis production