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The Theatreguide.London Review

Funny Girl
Menier Chocolate Factory Winter 2015-2016; Savoy Theatre Spring-Summer 2016

Funny Girl is a big, brash, funny, tuneful Broadway musical (songs by Jule Stein and Bob Merrill) from the tail end of Broadway's Golden Age, and a great deal of fun.

It is also the opportunity to watch an immensely attractive star triumph over being almost ludicrously miscast, through the sheer power of her talent and personality. 

As everyone knows, Funny Girl is a fictionalised biography of performer Fanny Brice, her rise from nowhere to big Broadway star in the early years of the last century, and her romance with gangster Nicky Arnstein (sanitised in the musical into a playboy with some unlucky investments). 

Fanny Brice was a comedienne and star of several editions of the famous Ziegfeld Follies. Her shtick was being a dumpy, unattractive, very Jewish, very working-class lady amazed to find herself in the company of the gorgeous Follies showgirls. 

The first half-hour or so of Funny Girl is built on jokes about her unattractiveness, her awkwardness, her lack of sophistication, her Brooklyn accent, her big nose and her general out-of-placeness. (You can see why the role made a star out of Barbra Streisand 51 years ago.) 

Sheridan Smith is a beautiful woman with a button nose. She's cute and adorable, not broad and overpowering, and so she has to spend much of the first act fighting the text, winning us over by her charm so we won't notice the gap between what we're told and what we see. 

And so whatever else is going on onstage, there's a fascinating drama of actress v. script, as the star works to reshape the musical into her image. 

Guess who wins, and thus makes this Funny Girl doubly fascinating and exciting to watch? 

Smith scores her first big victory with 'People', which she manages to sing as if we hadn't had Streisand's overpowering version drilled into our DNA for a half-century. 

She sings it simply and quietly, and as if discovering each new thought for the first time as the words appear, and in the process announces what has been hinted at earlier, that this is going to be her Fanny Brice and her Funny Girl, not an imitation of someone else's. 

She really takes possession of the role and the show in 'Don't Rain On My Parade', and you can feel the excitement, not just of a great first-act finale, but of a real star claiming her crown. 

From then on, through the whole second act, any memories of previous performances disappear completely into the Fanny Brice that Sheridan Smith has created and defined, and every scene and every song comes from the character, not the actress (an accomplishment Streisand never achieved, or could have).

All that's asked of whoever plays Nicky is that he be tall and handsome, but Darius Campbell delivers considerably more, singing attractively and finding unexpected depths and colours in the character that make him sympathetic.

(Harvey Fierstein has revised Isobel Lennart's original book for the musical, and I suspect that some of his tinkering has been to soften Nicky and give the actor more to work with.) 

Director Michael Mayer deserves some credit for guiding his stars to these full and fresh characterisations, and undoubtedly for encouraging Marilyn Cutts, Gay Soper and Valda Aviks, as Fanny's mother and her poker-playing buddies, to joyfully steal every scene they're in. 

A West End transfer was announced before the run at the Menier even opened. But you still have only a few months before it undoubtedly moves on again to Broadway, so don't wait. Go.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Funny Girl  -  Menier Chocolate Factory 2015   

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