funny girl

Funny Girl

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

Sheridan Smith is a special talent, a musical comedy gem who brings Broadway star Fanny Brice to sparkling, brilliant life.

It is the role and musical which made Barbra Streisand a huge star back in 1964 and although Smith might not have Streisand’s voice, and, let's be honest, how many do, she makes up for that and more by filling every inch of the huge Hippodrome stage with her bubbly personality.

She is funny and witty, she can sing and she throws in a whole range of comical voices, looks, gestures and asides, and it is not just comedy in which she excels, her acting shows every emotion from delight to despair. From her first out of step, out of time hoofing in the opening chorus line to her big finish and a standing ovation she is every inch a star.

Not that she is alone, the rest of the cast shine with her in this glitzy West End production from the Menier Chocolate Factory, the show’s first full-scale revival incidentally, with a revised book by Harvey Fierstein.

By co-incidence Fierstein also wrote the Tony award winning book for La Cage aux Folles which opens at the Hippodrome next week, on 16 May.

Funny Girl is based, in the very loosest sense of the word, on the life of Fanny Brice who became a Ziegfeld Follies headliner in 1910 and a Broadway, movie and radio star up to her death in 1951.

Darius Campbell is tall, dark and handsome as the gambling international man-about-town, Nick Arnstein, who woos and marries Fanny in a relationship which is doomed even without his being jailed for bond fraud. He is charm itself with a lovely voice for the duets with Brice.

SHeridan SMith

Sheridan Smith as Funny Girl Fanny Brice. Pictures: Johan Persson

Then there is Eddie, played by Joshua Lay, the dance captain, who carries a torch for Fanny which she never sees no matter how bright it burns, and Nigel Barber as Florenz Ziegfeld, he of  the follies, who has a, should we say, difficult relationship with his at times wayward star. And Fanny's first boss, theatre owner and impresario Mr Keeney, played by Martin Callaghan, who seems to remain a friend for life.

Closer to home there is Rachel Izen as Fanny’s bar owner mom along with her two equally mature friends Mrs Strakosh, played by Myra Sands and Mrs Meeker, played by Zoë Ann Bown, three Jewish mothers, playing gentle one-upmanship and poker for pennies. Mom, is there when needed, with little snippets of wisdom.

They are backed by a strong ensemble and a chorus line of dancers with classical training showing some more than competent en pointe work while down in the pit is an 11-piece band.

It is a pleasing trend that orchestras with touring productions are becoming larger to give a subsequently larger and fuller sound, such a welcome change after the cost cutting habit of a few years ago of three men and an ipod huddled in the centre of an empty pit trying to sound like a big band.

Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein

Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein

The orchestra under musical director Ben Van Tienen are excellent and have a chance to really let rip and show what they can do with a long overture and an entr'acte, the overture to the second act - something missing in many a modern musical.

The score, not the strongest of the genre if one is honest, helps move the story along, with a couple of clever duets including the lovely Who are you now? and it does have two stand out numbers, both of which will be forever associated with Streisand, with People and Don’t Rain on My Parade, but Smith took them back for the night, putting her own stamp on them.

Steisand incidentally, then scratching a living in a Greenwich Village club, was only fifth choice, and not even a unanimous one, for the original role of Fanny, Mary Martin and Ann Bancroft being the initial choices.

Smith is a first choice though and she showed she could really belt out a tune with the emotional Funny Girl finale and a powerful last note that goes on for ever.

Michael Pavelka’s setting is simple and effective with mirrored legs giving some interesting visual effects and sliding or carried on furniture giving us constantly changing scenes, a technique helped by Mark Henderson’s intelligent lighting.

We go from stage to dressing room, hotel dining room to mansion, station to mom's bar all in an instant with even a backdrop of Ziegfeld's auditorium when needed so we can be behind Fanny when she makes her big exit.

The musical is set in the 1910s, when Brice first teamed up with Ziegfeld and Matthew Wright’s costumes set the era well in a show, directed with some flair by Michael Mayer, which ticks pretty well all the boxes. Sheridan Smith got a standing ovation and she, and the whole cast and crew, deserved it for giving us a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable evening. To 13-05-17.

Roger Clarke

09-05-17

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