(4 / 5)
Funny Girl brings West End’s finest to Cardiff, with a cast and supporting ensemble singers and dancers honed to the highest degree of excellency. Based on the real-life story of actress and comedian Fanny Brice, Funny Girl opened as a musical in 1963 on Broadway, transferring to the West End a year later. For many of us, Barbra Streisand’s performance as Fanny in the film still remains in the memory as one of the shining star performances in theatre history.
All the more credit, then, to Sheridan Smith for taking on and embracing a role that calls for every ounce of energy as well as talent in the current revival which opened in the West End last year. Taking place in and around New York just prior to and following World I, this production is staged in its entirety beneath the proscenium arch of the Ziegfeld Theatre, with settings including Fanny’s dressing room at the theatre, Fanny’s home and various other venues where she performed. It’s a rags-to-riches story of Fanny’s rise to stardom and the rise and fall of the courtship and marriage between the unconventional, quirky Fanny and dishy gambler Nick Arnstein.
Smith has the poignancy and the self-doubt behind Fanny’s jokey façade to a T, bringing a tear to the eyes with her singing of People in Act I and belting out with gusto numbers such Don’t Rain on My Parade, although with a tendency now and then to go over the top. Great duets, too, with Darius Campbell as the inveterate gambler Arnstein, who sits down with alacrity to play poker with Fanny’s mum, the indomitable Mrs Brice, and her mates without realising he has fallen into the hands of experts. Campbell is at his best in that scene and in Act I, but not always convincing in the scenes with Smith in the latter half.
The supporting roles do a huge amount towards making this musical what it is, with real star quality from Rachel Izen as Fanny’s mother and Myra Sands as her friend and fellow poker player Mrs Strakosh and some great rendering of numbers such as If A Girl Isn’t Pretty in the opening scene. The nimble-footed Joshua Lay is a wonderfully emotive Eddie Ryan, the dancer who encourages fanny but gets no encouragement from her as far as their personal relationship is concerned. Lay displays some brilliant and acrobatic tap dancing, while Nigel Barber’s portrayal of the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld is almost surreal in its believability.
The dancers and singers of the ensemble have style and panache, with some high speed numbers, notably Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat in Act II, with choreography which includes a touch of the Irish, backed up in intensely green costumes (St Patrick’s Day et al). As for the music – wonderful, with Jule Styne’s tremendous score arranged for this production by Alan Williams and top rank choreography by Lynne Page.
A feel-good show, this – catch it if you can.
Runs until Saturday 8th July
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Book: Isobel Lennart
Director: Michael Mayer
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
When most people think of Funny Girl it is probably inevitable that they think of Barbra Streisand who played musical comedy star Fanny Brice in the Broadway Production of 1964 and went on to win an oscar for the movie of the same name. Songs such as ‘People’ and ‘Rain On My Parade’ are so synonymous with Streisand, that I wondered whether the new Funny Girl revival, that has recently transferred to the beautiful Art Deco surroundings of the Savoy Theatre in London, would suffer in comparison.
My only experience of Sheridan Smith was as a television actress notably in Mrs Biggs, Gavin and Stacey and of course playing Cilla Black. Having watched her playing Cilla I knew that she could sing but there is singing on television and there is commanding a stage. I need not have worried. From the moment Sheridan takes the stage, she is Fanny Brice. It would be understandable to have an actress offer up a performance of Streisand’s interpretation of Fanny Brice but Smith doesn’t do this. Funny Girl is taken back to its Broadway roots. It is Brice’s story, albeit a somewhat fictional account of her rise to fame and subsequent marriage to gambler Nick Arnstein, played with a delicate light and shade from Darius Campbell. Yes, it is he of Pop Idol fame.
Darius delivers a very strong performance but the stage belongs to Sheridan Smith. I have rarely seen an actress so totally inhabit a character in musical theatre. From her walk, her superb comic timing and her delivery of each song, Sheridan does not miss a beat. She is actually so good that you barely notice the rest of the cast and they deserve to be noticed for they are truly excellent, particularly Marilyn Cutts who plays Fanny’s mother and Joel Montague who plays Eddie.
The musical itself is a game of two halves as the first half is the thrill of the chase, Fanny chasing fame and Nick Arnstein. A riotous and joyful ride of delicious comedy and gorgeous songs stunningly delivered. The second half of the show centres on the breakdown of her marriage and is tender and poignant but lacks the punch of the opening act. The staging is smart, suggesting hints of Vaudeville, a Brooklyn tenement and the opulence of the Ziegfeld Follies without using much more than costumes and some clever movements across the stage. The whole show is carried beautifully by a stunning central performance as Sheridan Smith is one of those stage performers that the audience loves from the minute she sets foot on that stage to the final lung busting notes. The standing ovation was immediate and heartfelt. I would heartily recommend Funny Girl. Sheridan Smith is a special talent on a stage and that is not to be missed.