Although renowned for his brassy, ‘ginger and jazz’, quintessentially American scores, Jule Style was in fact a Londoner by birth. His native city has recently enjoyed a rare revival of his masterpiece Gypsy, the story of a ruthlessly ambitious stage mother, helmed by a stupendous performance by Imelda Staunton. Funny Girl is a companion piece of sorts, another highly fictionalised take on a true story set in the lost world of vaudeville that requires one hell of a leading lady. Fanny Brice had enough self-motivation for a dozen tenements and didn’t need anyone to push her to the top of the Ziegfeld Follies. If, in an alternate universe, Fanny Brice had been Madame Rose’s daughter, the results would have been explosive: either they would have understood each other perfectly, or they would have burned each other out spectacularly.
Having had a chance to see the 1968 film on the big screen earlier this year, it would be easy to conclude that the Oscar-winning Barbra Streisand was so sensational and so closely identified with this indomitable Jewish star that no other actress should attempt to follow in her footsteps. And yet, the show wasn’t conceived with Streisand in mind and the real Brice never would have sung ‘My Man’ in the way that Streisand did in the film. No one owns a role and it’s too good a part and too marvellous a score (unpopular opinion alert: it’s as good as Gypsy) with top-notch lyrics by Bob Merrill not to be given a fresh airing for successive generations.
In the chameleonic, effortlessly engaging Sheridan Smith, we have a far more approachable Fanny than Streisand’s (who surely would have been formidable/terrifying even as a young ingénue). Sacked from a leggy chorus line for her diminutive stature and lack of dancing ability, she resembles a plucky Edwardian schoolgirl heroine in her curly wig and knickerbockers; she immediately befriends the audience with giggles and winks by inviting them in on the joke so that they can laugh with her before they’re tempted to laugh at her klutzy dancing. Smith is all ‘thirty-six expressions, sweet as pie to tough as leather’ and self-deprecation, a ‘bagel on a tray of onion rolls’, an escapee from All of a Kind Family amongst Gibson girls. As an actress and a comic, she’s delightful; the issues are with the voice. If Styne’s music was closer to the way in which the real Brice (who was no big belter) sang, she would be fine, but the songs do require heftier lung power. She holds back in the first act, as if saving up for ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ (which she does deliver with aplomb). Perhaps it’s greedy to want more but these vocal shortcomings do make me hesitate from crowning Smith as ‘that one very special person’ to seamlessly lift the role from Streisand’s shadow.
The showbusiness story success story is combined with Fanny’s longing for a fulfilling personal life and romance with the rakish gambler Nick Arnstein. The toweringly tall reality TV veteran Darius Campbell is a touch more sleazy than dashing and, with his limited dramatic range, the second-act culmination of Nick’s crisis of masculinity about money is something of an afterthought. Marilyn Cutts is tenderly supportive as Fanny’s ever-loving mother (the anti-Mama Rose), flanked by amusing character work from Gay Soper and Valda Aviks as her poker-playing Jewish senior citizen pals. There is also a warm and nimble- footed performance from Joel Montague as Fanny’s other suitor Eddie, less glamorous than Nick but much more suitable husband material.
With a West End transfer announced before the production even opened, there is an air of an out of town tryout, with bigger things on its mind rather than a production immaculately conceived for the confines of the Menier Chocolate Factory. Lynn Page’s choreography is particularly good at evoking the tight-knit Henry Street community and should look super on a bigger stage. On the other hand, Michael Pavekla’s rather bland design needs to be glitzed up with a lot more Zieglfeld-ean gaudiness. Does director Michael Mayer manage to keep his ruffled shirt? Undoubtedly, from a commercial point of view, with a run than sold out in ninety minutes but further work is still needed to turn this somewhat stunted duckling of a production into a fully-fledged swan.