The Savoy Theatre, London. Wednesday 31st August, 2016 (matinee).
Let me start by saying that this production of ‘Funny Girl’ was wonderful in ways which were paradoxically expected and unexpected. I expected great things from Sheridan Smith, and this was readily delivered. I was expecting a grand West End Musical, complete with all the large scale spectacle and voices which make the rafters ring; what I got instead was a much more subtle, surprisingly ‘different’, re-imagined ‘Funny Girl’, which quite rightly played to the biggest strengths of the lead. Fanny Brice is the main attraction and Smith has a phenomenal amount of stage time; playing to her strengths worked a treat. The very best thing about this production is that Smith made the role completely her own, with never an inkling of imitation – and that’s quite something.
At first, I was taken aback by Sheridan Smith’s approach to the role; I’ll admit, as a long-time Streisand fan, I was expecting a good, solid almost-reproduction of the original, with clear emphasis on the musical aspects. However, the songs of ‘Funny Girl’ were delivered primarily with comedy, not the traditional West End\ Broadway belting that I was convinced I would see (at least this was the case in the first act). Was this surprising? Yes. Was it a little unsettling to have the rug pulled from under me and my knowledgeable expectations of a West End musical? Yes, definitely. But the key question is, was it a disaster? Not a jot, kid; in fact, quite the reverse. Rather than indulging in imagining Streisand in Smith’s place on stage, as I had thought would be inevitable being the fan that I am, I was forced to watch ‘Funny Girl’ anew, because Sheridan Smith did absolutely the right thing in making the role completely her own, with such passion and lovable, goofy charm that I was able to thoroughly enjoy the production in its own right and not spend my time, however unintentional or subconscious, making comparisons. What’s more, I was also absolutely won over by a truly, thoroughly comical Fanny Brice- who after all, was a comic first.
Smith’s performances of ‘His Love Makes Me Beautiful’, ‘You Are Woman\ I am Man’ and ‘Rat-Tat-Tat- Tat’ had me smiling to myself on the tube back to the station and even now, as I write. The physical comedy was a playful, inoffensive nod towards bawdiness but never far from classic but well restrained slapstick; fabulously entertaining and very funny. If I weren’t so British and very well behaved in the theatre, I would have been cackling. Instead, I was doing silent belly laughs- Santa style. Sheridan Smith was every bit the leading lady and her comic timing, mannerisms and physicality were absolutely a winning combination- there were definitely times when I was aware of myself beaming as much as the character on stage. In addition, her portrayal of early Fanny Brice circa the Keeney audition is every bit as endearingly charming as the ‘Our Sammy’ speech from ‘Blood Brothers’- the bashful, immature characterisation is very much in the same vein. In a performance which had more bubbles than a kid’s birthday party, Smith couldn’t cram in more beaming grins and good nature if she tried- and it was dazzling to watch.
By the interval, I’d almost made my mind up: this production of ‘Funny Girl’ is a comedy with music, such was the strength of the comedy- aside from very pretty performances of ‘People’ and ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’, few of Fanny’s songs were sung ‘straight’. The ensemble’s musical numbers were, but not those of the protagonist. This wasn’t a negative thing, there’s no doubt that Smith has a lovely voice, as was perfectly evident in her ‘straight’ numbers and some thoroughly beautiful harmonies- and we’ve all seen her shining brightly in ‘Cilla’. It just so happened that for me, the emphasis was on the comedy and not the musical numbers. Smith’s voice, while very pretty and capable of a strong belt, isn’t the traditional theatrical voice that we’re so used to hearing in the West End. I heard absolutely no vibrato for instance; her voice being much more suited to pure, sweet, clipped notes. Regardless, I don’t give a hoot that this production didn’t feel like it had a proof of residence as ‘West End’; it was actually very enjoyable to experience a hybrid like this.
Act Two showed us a different Fanny Brice again; despite knowing the play and script embarrassingly well, it somehow didn’t strike me that of course this couldn’t be a comedy with music- the drama, the tears and the compulsorily sombre ballads were yet to come. In the second act, Smith was heartbreaking, vulnerable, defiant and lost. It was a stellar performance when you consider the rollercoaster of genres, demanding physicality and emotions required for this role; hilarious and heartbreaking within a couple of hours, with tap-dancing, singing and careering around the stage like an Olympic rhythmic gymnast, with never an indication of lapsing energy- goodness me, what a challenge and what an accomplishment. Sheridan Smith showed herself to be every bit a multi-talented star yesterday.
The cast of ‘Funny Girl’ are a talented collection of multi-disciplined actors. Darius, yes, THAT Darius, played Nicky Arnstein- and he played the part brilliantly. Tall, dark and handsome? Check. Can sing softly and belt like someone in the audition line for ‘Phantom’? Check. Evident chemistry with one Ms. Sheridan Smith, playing Fanny Brice? Check. All that and he can do both drama and comedy- who knew? Impressive. The ensemble Follies ensemble were wonderful; graceful and funny in turns and with some lovely vocals too. Visually, Ziegfeld (Bruce Montague) couldn’t have been more perfectly cast and Rose (Fanny’s Mama, played by Marilyn Cutts) had just the right balance of no-nonsense and sensitivity- although I did miss ‘Find a Man’, which was cut from this production; I think she would have done a wonderful job with Joel Montague, who played Eddy with tragic charm.
The show is set around 1927 and the set, costume and props definitely evoked the period throughout. The set design was very simple (it transferred from The Menier Chocolate Factory)- just a few very effectively used conveyor belts and token furniture to indicate various scene changes; tables, chairs, cases, costume racks, dressing tables and a dressing screen. Simple but effective; always a winner. The costumes were more complex and detailed, the Follies were dressed in various sparkly numbers and classy travelling clothes while Fanny’s wardrobe mirrored her changing character, age and situation.
To finish; ‘Funny Girl’ is a show that keeps giving and giving over the course of the performance; comedy, charm, beautiful vocals, heartbreak, angst and grit are all there for our viewing pleasure, and it really is a pleasure (or pain, taking into account the narrative) to see. I recommend it highly; I haven’t seen another production in the West End that has surprised, puzzled and won me over like this one. Whatever you’re expecting of this production, whether you love the film and\or have the film\Broadway cast recordings or not, you’ll get something completely different and altogether re-imagined with this production. If you want to see an imitation, steer clear. But if you want to see a great actress expertly put her own spin on a famous role, and prove herself to be a very, very funny girl, get yourself a ticket.
‘Funny Girl’ runs at The Savoy Theatre, London, until 8th October 2016. You can get your tickets here: http://www.funnygirlthemusical.co.uk/
Note: this post was first published at OnStageBlog.com.