Funny Girl continues at the Savoy Theatre, London until 8 October.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
When it was announced that Sheridan Smith was to play Fanny Brice at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015, the complete run of Funny Girl sold out within 24 hours. In theatrical terms, Smith is extremely valuable currency in the West End, being one of the few cross-over actors to maintain a major presence on TV and on stage. It is not an undeserved position. An actor of great emotional range, Smith has tackled comedy (perhaps her forté), drama and musical theatre and has a host of well-deserved accolades including an OBE for services to entertainment.
The production at the Menier proved a qualified success and while Harvey Fierstein’s revisions of Isobel Lennart’s book did little to solve the show’s historical problems, it was full-steam ahead with a transfer to the larger and more profitable Savoy.
Initially it might be imagined the size of the Savoy stage would allow Lynne Page’s choreography room to breathe, Michael Pavelka’s set design to expand and the production blossom as a big West End show. In fact, if anything the move has flagged up the nagging flaws that were less noticeable on a smaller stage.
The intimacy of the Menier space necessitated an act of collusion between Smith and her audience. An inherently funny girl, Smith barnstormed her way through the role with a knowing wink and instinctive timing. Perhaps to compensate for the much larger stage, everything is bigger. While playing to the gallery, the laughs appear to have gotten cheaper and a whole lot less classy.
Musically Smith is a great singer, capable of carrying shows such as Little Shop of Horrors and Legally Blonde with style and strength. Even without Streisand’s almost indelible stamp on the role, Smith struggles with Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s big musical numbers such as ‘People’ and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’. They are painstakingly negotiated to lessen the strain on the vocal cords and maximise the emotional journey, but ultimately they are competent rather than showstopping.
Smith fares much better with the comedy numbers, such as ‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’, although the laughter prompted by her clowning around Darius Campbell’s gorgeous Nick Arnstein drowns out most of Merrill’s choice lyrics. Campbell has indeed warmed to his role a little, although the character of Arnstein remains painfully two-dimensional – it has to be remembered that the original producer of this musical was married to the daughter of Arnstein and Brice, Francis. Far more satisfying are Marilyn Cutts as Mrs Brice and Joel Montague as Eddi Ryan, who get a well-deserved chance to show off in Act II with the song and dance number ‘Who Taught Her Everything?’
Pavelka’s composite set design has been stretched to fill the Savoy stage and to an extent this works but Matthew Wright’s costumes suffer. The hired pieces on the chorus look decent enough, but only serve to show how painfully ill-cut Smith’s costumes are. Brash colour choices and cheap fabrics combine to produce some surprisingly ugly pieces lacking texture and class. The brashness of the stage costumes makes sense although the Follies scene is a woefully missed opportunity – remember Ziegfeld is a man who, according to the book, would willingly ‘raise the pros arch’ rather than compromise on extravagant costumes.
Like Gypsy, its predecessor at the Savoy, Funny Girl had not been seen in the West End in decades. Smith may have made its revival possible but this production hasn’t transferred from its Off-West End roots well.
Tickets for Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre are available HERE.
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Funny Girl – Menier Chocolate Factory – Review
Interview – Marilyn Cutts on playing Mrs Brice in Funny Girl