The Savoy Theatre, London. Wednesday 31st August, 2016.
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. With such passion and lovable, goofy charm, Smith absolutely won us over with a 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’ were highlights and the physical comedy was a playful nod towards bawdiness but never far from classic but well restrained slapstick. 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. And 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.
Aside from renditions 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 as 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’. For me though, the emphasis here 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.
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 costumes were beautifully time stamped and detailed, with the Follies dressed in various sparkly numbers and classy travelling clothes while Fanny’s wardrobe mirrored her changing character, age and situation.
‘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. 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.