Funny Girl – Menier Chocolate Factory

Funny Girl - Sheridan Smith (Fanny Brice) - picture by Marc Brenner

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London. Picture: Marc Brenner

Funny Girl continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 5 March, then transfers to the Savoy Theatre from 9 April to 10 September.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

It’s nigh on half a century since Barbra Streisand brought Funny Girl over from Broadway and I forked out a precious two pounds five shillings for the hottest ticket in town from a modest £23-a-week stipend as Entertainments and Sports Editor of my local West London rag.

That 14-week run at the Prince of Wales turned out to be the first and only time La Streisand sang in a West End musical but now the wonderful Sheridan Smith, not the world’s highest-paid singer but a more natural comedienne, puts her own loveable spin on the role of Fanny Brice.

In many ways it is a part made in heaven for her as Brice was also a ‘jolie laide’ who didn’t fit into the conventional picture of a showbiz icon but won hearts over with cheeky charm and an innate ability to make people laugh.

As with Smith, the singing was a sideline to her main talent – and we know from Legally Blonde and her uncanny TV portrayal of Cilla Black how vocally gifted she is on top of being one of the most exciting acting talents on the planet.

Having just watched Imelda Staunton absolutely nail it in Gypsy in the musical performance of a lifetime, it is the perfect time to puff out British chests at producing two native talents, not only matching Broadway’s finest in tales of their own vaudeville history, but knocking them out of the park.

Both shows have great Jule Styne scores but the difference between a great musical and an okay one lies in the strength of the construction and storyline. Gypsy wins hands down on both counts which may be one reason why it has taken so long for Funny Girl to be revived.

It is Fanny’s “funniness” that causes handsome rogue, bon viveur and reckless gambler Nick Arnstein to fall in love with her in what looks a mismatch likely to end in heartache for our heroine.

That’s what it proves to be once Fanny’s growing career as the secret weapon in the Ziegfeld Follies success story and her new-found wealth alter the balance of power and kill the marriage.

Harvey Fierstein has revised Isabel Lennart’s thin book to good effect but the jury’s still out as to whether the will-he-won’t-he-stay-with-her drama is enough to sustain a long musical.

Bob Merrill’s lyrics remain as winning as ever, with Smith at her happiest with uncomplicated belters like ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ and ‘I’m the Greatest Star’’ or the humour of the company numbers ‘Sadie, Sadie’ and ‘Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat’.

But on the more reflective ‘People’ and my idea of the show’s best song ‘The Music That Makes Me Dance’, it is difficult for her to come entirely out of Streisand’s shadow, although you’d never guess it from the audience’s rapturous response.

One-time Pop Idol finalist, the absurdly suave and debonair Darius Campbell, offers a smooth-as-chocolate voice as the feckless Arnstein, Joel Montague shows amazing agility for a big fella as Fanny’s mentor Eddie Ryan, and the three Jewish poker-playing old ladies, dotty Gay Soper, Valda Aviks and Marilyn Cutts (terrific as Fanny’s mother Rose) hijack every scene they’re in.

Seasoned American Michael Mayer’s assured direction brings plenty of Broadway and Brooklyn chutzpah to London, Lynne Page’s choreography lights up the many long-legged ensemble routines and musical supervisor Alan Williams’ arrangements, helped by a band of ten, do full justice to Styne’s genius.

There’s no point in telling you to get down to the Menier as the run (to 5 March) was allegedly sold out within minutes thanks to the pulling power of Sheridan Smith, but the good news is that the West End transfer to the Savoy (from 8 April) has been extended.

It will look more comfortable there and certainly worth seeing for an exceptional performance that carries a less-than-exceptional musical to a triumphant conclusion and standing ovation.

Jeremy Chapman

Tickets for the West End run of Funny Girl can be bought here: www.musicaltheatrereview.entstix.com/tickets/funny-girl

Readers may also be interested in:

Funny Girl extends run at the Savoy Theatre until 10 September – News

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