Fanny Brice may sing the song but it is Sheridan Smith who is the greatest star, leading a long overdue, sassy revival of Broadway classic Funny Girl.
Selling out a 15-week season in a matter of hours, the production announced a transfer to the West End’s Savoy Theatre before opening night. Not seen or heard on the professional stage for some 50 years, the show has the distinct advantage of a catalogue full of hits, kept alive by the 1968 movie. The new staging also benefits from an update to the book by Broadway magician Harvey Fierstein, who respectfully maintains the integrity and spirit of the original rather than parading a series of broad one-liners.
In line with the structure of a memory play about the theatre, designer Michael Pavelka fashions furniture out of various trunks and trestle tables. A rear backdrop shows a grand sweeping auditorium and footlights. Additional scenic elements appear, as the memories unfold, as hazy mirages in the antiqued mirror stage legs.
Matthew Wright’s costumes chart Fanny’s rise from floppy bloomers to plush furs, all the while maintaining her celebrated shapeless form. Wigs also aid the distinction between Fanny and the traditionally “beautiful” chorus girls by having the six ladies of the chorus appear very close to identical.
Smith gives a plucky, supremely endearing performance as Fanny, gently coaxing the audience into her palm and then not letting go for the duration. Smith’s singing style is gently quirky and characterful, sufficiently different in sound to her famous counterpart so as to avoid any comparison.
The definition of tall, dark and handsome, Darius Campbell has the sexy smoky voice to match his smouldering looks. Despite his height and vocal power, Campbell still conveys an underlying insecurity in Nick Arnstein’s pursuit of Fanny, allowing the character’s doubt to gradually rise up and strangle him.
Smith and Campbell enjoy lovelychemistry, and when they sing nifty duet “You are Woman, I am Man,” it is music theatre heaven.
Another dose of heaven, as if the entire show is not a pure dream, comes in act two charmer “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” Joel Montague delivers extraordinary dance steps as hoofer Eddie. Marilyn Cutts beams with down to earth humanity and theatrical class as Fanny’s devoted mother Rose Brice.
Director Michael Mayer respects the old world charm while adding more than a dash of modern flow and zip, staging filmic, even abstract, dissolves between and within scenes, and streamlining montages upon a pair of travelators.
Choreographer Lynne Page provides a witty nod to the era, allowing the dancers to perform the necessarily hokey steps with a knowing wink. The proliferation of tap steps is wonderful, and Smith does a shuffle-ball-change with the very best of them.
While the movie was edited into a bit of a one-woman show, the musical, while clearly a star vehicle, features a colourful supporting cast of Fanny’s friends and family. As performed by the talented company, the stage fairly glows with affectionate warmth
Back in Henry Street, strong support comes from Valda Aviks as Mrs Meeker and the veritable Gay Soper as Mrs Strakosh.
Richard Brooker’s sound design has a wonderfully natural sound for the modest-sized auditorium, and balance with the band of ten musicians is excellent.
Buy a ticket to Funny Girl at the Savoy while some seats still remain.
Funny Girl plays at Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 5 March 2016 before transferring to Savoy Theatre, London.
Funny Girl was reviewed at Menier Chocolate Factory, London 3.30pm Saturday 16 January 2016.
Photos: Marc Brenner