The Guy Said Honey, You’re a Funny Girl…A few years ago, tickets went on sale for the West End transfer of Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Funny Girl starring Sheridan Smith, a television and stage actress widely knows for her leading role performances in Little Shop of Horrors (2007) and Legally Blonde (2010). I impatiently snatched up two tickets for a summer London trip that had yet to be planned nor even discussed with my fellow theatre junkie. It was the first full-scale revival ever of this star-making musical and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to reveal in it. After opening in December of 2015, the show sold out within one day, and transferred to the West End’s Savoy Theatre on April 9, 2016, for a run through to mid-October, extending once due to the high demand for tickets. So I felt lucky, at the time, to have gotten two really good seats.
To say that I’m a fan of the show, well, of the film really, is an understatement of the highest order, and the fact that no one has dared to revive this show since its initial Broadway staging back in 1964 (1,348 performances) with Barbra Streisand embodying the part of Fanny Brice, says buckets regarding the lasting connection we all have with her portrayal. I was non-fussed, though, as someone was bound to come along, and stage a revival eventually, starring someone that would try not to mimic Streisand but create an original fresh take on the bittersweet story of Fanny Brice and her husband, gambling man Nick. There was an initial rush of somewhat confused joy when a revival, directed by Bartlett Sher, was announced, premiering at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in January 2012 with Lauren Ambrose starring as Fanny Brice and Bobby Cannavale as Nicky Arnstein. This was before she made her Broadway musical debut in Lincoln Center’s My Fair Lady, so I didn’t quite get the casting of Ambrose. Turns out, she has an amazingly beautiful voice, although I still don’t see the Fanny in her frame. The highly anticipated revival was then slated to open on Broadway in April 2012. However, producer Bob Boyett announced in late 2011 that the production had to be postponed indefinitely because “many Broadway producing investors have found it impossible to maintain their standard level of financial commitment.“One odd revival of note, was the 2014 reimagining in the hands of the director Joil Newman who flipped the female role of Fanny to a male named Funnie Brice. The actor Julio Cesar Arturo Valverde Monje played the iconic character first in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the Teatro Opera, and then toured the rest of South America to sold-out shows. I mean, I don’t quite see it, but hey, if Sondheim can do it with Company. Why not, is all one can say.Years ago, I thought it might be Lea Michelle and the producer of television’s “Glee”, Ryan Murphy (who I believe owned the rights for a Broadway revival). She most definitely has the voice, and the stage presence to give that part a real run for the money, but I had my doubts. She sounds almost too similar to Streisand, which might actually kill the production, making it impossible to put every gesture and intonation of Streisand out of our heads while trying to see it anew. And is she really all that funny? So I was so very excited to see this daring West End revival and dive into Smith’s take on the role. I was extremely optimistic.
But as luck will have it (good or bad luck, I’ll leave it up to you to decide), I never did find out if Smith could do the role, at least on that London trip. The critics said she was ‘the jewel at the heart of this production’ (The Telegraph, April 21, 2016), but on April 28th, 2016 the show was halted 15 minutes into Act One, and thereafter, ‘due to the indisposition of Sheridan Smith’, the role of Fanny Brice would be played by her understudy Natasha J Barnes. It was reported it was due to stress and exhaustion, so it was Barnes that I saw on that trip, and it was Barnes who I thought was utterly spectacular. A star-making kind of moment, I had stated at the time, and one that I am grateful to have been in attendance.
“That’s where I live, on stage,” Fanny says. So four years later while on COVID-19 isolation in Toronto, I finally had the chance to find out if Smith truly is and was that fine jewel within the show. Filmed in full bloom during the final week of the UK tour at the Manchester Palace Theatre in 2018, the festive revival of Funny Girl, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, is an easy-breezy performance to take in. It floats forth full of fun and big grins, but I must admit she doesn’t have the required killer voice to knock those songs out of the park with power. She definitely has the presence to hold onto our attention and make us believe in her funny girl Ziegfeld fame. Framed by Michael Pavelka’s flashy blinking light set, the titled proscenium arches draw our eye inward, making us feel like she is only fully comfortable when on stage. The silhouette from behind looking out into the audience is the perfect set up, just like the first time we see Streisand in the famed film. It’s classic and tells the tale we already know and love. She sings with charm and wit, occasionally belting out broadly a moment here and there, but unfortunately, never with enough guts to make us forget Barbra.Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. Savoy Theatre, London, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson.
She finds layers to unwrap inside that Brooklyn jokester who quickly climbs up the entertainment ladder to become a bonafide Ziegfeld star before she even knows it. “I haven’t suffered enough“, she says, and we all laughingly groan alongside her mother and friends. She’s perpetually putting on a goofy big smile, even sometimes as her heart is breaking. A laugh is just her best defense mechanism against the pain and loss she is feeling, even if it lessens the emotional moment. Tears cascade down her face during a wonderfully engaging rendition of ‘People‘, with a joke and a tap dance not too far behind. Smith never tries to replicate her famous predecessor, giving the songs a story entirely of their own. She does justice to Styne’s well-known melodies with unique solid emotion, never faltering or failing. Her “Don’t Rain on My Parade” sings strong, while never mimicking the defiance of Barbra’s rendition. It’s a strong understanding of the piece and the role, but she also never seems as funny as she thinks she is, especially during the seduction number with Nick. “You are Woman” doesn’t have the danger, nor the sexual electricity to believe in the dynamic.Sheridan Smith (center) performing “Cornet Man” with Peter Nash and Lloyd Davies in Funny Girl.
I also noticed something this time around that I never thought of when I saw it before with Barnes. The staged numbers that Smith performs as Fanny never rise up to the same level as the movie counterparts, I ached for the simple “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Happy With Somebody Else)”, “Second Hand Rose” or the wickedly funny “Swan Lake” parody, but nothing in the stage version, particularly the mediocre “Cornet Man” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat“, comes remotely close. They are not as funny, nor as beautiful. Smith is a great actress and a pretty good singer but she never comes close to Streisand’s epic performance in the film version or her ability to be funny without over-selling the joke. Streisand won an Oscar for the 1968 film version of her Broadway breakthrough. but to compare this show to the film constantly is a disservice to all involved in this revival. So I’ll TRY not to,….but I can’t promise I won’t.
Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein is tuxedo worthy of Fanny’s endearing adoration. He’s “gorgeous“, as she likes to point out, and stands glaringly tall above all around him. He gives off a solid sexy charisma that would sweep pretty much anyone off their feet, but for the most part, the role never really gives the actor much of a chance to show off. There are moments, here and there, when we think, my, that was a lovely note or phrase, but his awkward dancing in “Temporary Arrangement” never pays off in the numbers given. It doesn’t help that the Harvey Fierstein revised version of Lennart’s thin book doesn’t give him a realistic “choking” moment to flail around in. The result is a lopsided love affair that doesn’t ever feel truly electric. Then again, this musical has always been about its female lead, and this particular staging spotlights the aura of the Ziegfeld Follies over the real-life romantic troubles of Fanny and her marriage to Nick. They are a side note here, a gazing in the mirrored walls on the edge of the stage, showcasing his beauty, but little else.
Director Michael Mayer’s production keeps up the hard-working pace, just like its talented heroine, moving the story along with skill and never really taking the tale too dramatically serious. He has Smith mugging for laughs as if her life depended on it, physically looking for the joke in every tailored moment, even when a more subtle one might do the trick, much like Lynne Page’s elbow nudging choreography. It’s all big and obvious, to the extreme. Smith displays her strengths, though with ease. She does well in uncomplicated numbers like “I‘m the Greatest Star“, but doesn’t manage to find the soul in the more heartfelt numbers. The best is the duet with Campbell’s Nick mid-Act Two, “Who Are You Now?” that finally gives the two of them a chance to shine together emotionally, a rare thing to be found in this rendition of the stage musical.
In many ways, the stage musical is well rounded and traditional, giving several characters and situations more to play with than the Fanny-focused Streisand film. Mother Brice, well played by Rachel Izen, and the two other poker-playing ladies; Zoe Ann Bown and Myra Sands, find flavor and fun in their side-act moments, while the more complex character, Eddie Ryan, played strongly by Joshua Lay, gets a few of his own moments to shine in, such as the mother/Eddie duet, “Who Taught Her Everything?” It’s a true showmanship number and one that leaves us wanting more from the both of them.Sheridan Smith and Joshua Lay. The stage musical does differ a fair amount from the movie but it also holds on to most of the lovely parts. I did, both now and back then, miss “My Man“, the song that brings the movie to a powerful end, and wished to hear Smith’s version, but what she does with the reprise blending of “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as the final song is quite the stand-up-and-cheer kind of moment. All in all, this streamed filmed version of the stage production of Funny Girl is a fun slice of high entertainment to behold. I do believe the movie version was an improvement on the stage musical on a number of different levels, but in terms of a classic stage revival, this Funny Girl from Menier Chocolate Factory is well rounded and perfectly solid in its delivery. Streisand knowingly sang back in the day, “ya gotta have a swan or you’re outta luck, cause a chicken wouldn’t do, it would only cluck.” This revival sadly doesn’t best the swan, nor was it able to make me forget the film, but it certainly doesn’t cluck either.If you can, please donate to the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre (click here) or a theatre near you. They are all in need, and desperately need your help.
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