Tuesday, May 03, 2016

FUNNY GIRL at the Savoy Theatre - The Greatest Star?

With every year there is a fondness for looking back to 50 year anniversaries so here is another one - it is 50 years since the Bob Merrill and Jule Styne musical FUNNY GIRL opened in London at the Prince of Wales Theatre.  It starred a certain actress who had played it on Broadway two years before...

Four months after it opened, it was gone after Streisand discovered she was pregnant.  Nice timing Babs.  Almost a year after it closed, she started filming the movie version which went on to win her an Academy Award - and she has never acted on stage since.

The common belief is that the show has never been revived due to Streisand's indelible stamp on it but there is another more basic problem which is shown up in the new revival which has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Savoy, recently the home of another Jule Styne revival GYPSY.

As Mr and Mrs World know, the show stars our very own Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, the gangly, rubber-faced Jewish New Yorker who, in the Ziegfeld Follies between 1910 and 1923, made herself an audience sweetheart with her clowning but also with her ability to sing torch songs that broke your heart.  She is all but forgotten now, her memory kept alive by the show.

Sheridan Smith is one of the select few actresses who can guarantee an audience for a West End show and for good reason - she has real star wattage on stage and a natural bond with her audience.  Her voice isn't the most distinctive but she knows how to use it and, as she proved with the famous numbers here, she also knows how to belt out a long last note.

Of course a star will always be a star but not for one second did I feel that Sheridan Smith lost herself in the character of Fanny Brice, she was always Sheridan Smith in a black wig.  Director Michael Meyer has her playing up the face-mugging, knock-kneed klutz but it's an uneven fit.  Her most telling moments are when she is in a more reflective moments, singing lovely versions of "People", "His Is The Only Music That Makes Me Dance" and the interpolated title song which was written for the film.

Despite Harvey Fierstein rejigging the script and swapping some songs around, the biggest problem is the show itself.  I suspect one reason it has not been revived more often is because it all feels so desperately thin. The whole focus is on Fanny - and even her character is hardly layered - the other characters are so paper-thin they could almost blow over.  Fierstein should probably have dropped a couple of the more generic numbers and in particular, the endless "Rat-A-Tat-Tat".  A song which highlights Brice's usual shtick, it's an endless song about a Yiddish soldier in World War 1 that had me biting my knuckles in pain.

Darius Campbell was surprisingly effective as the gambling man-about-town Nicky Arnstein who was Brice's first husband but again he is only there for Fanny to react off of so the sudden rush of exposition about his downfall in the second act - and an added solo number - come to late to make him at all interesting.  His height also made for an odd fit with the diminutive Sheridan.

Bruce Montague wanders on and off occasionally as Florenz Ziegfeld without ever suggesting how important he was either on early 20th Century Broadway or in Fanny's professional life, Joel Montague has some nice moments as her friend Eddie Ryan but the award for making bricks from straw goes to Marilyn Cutts as Mrs Brice, always watchable and a performance of loving steeliness.

FUNNY GIRL had a torturous birth: Fanny Brice's son-in-law, producer Ray Stark, decided against the publication of a biography and wanted to make it into a film, only to be told by Mary Martin that it should be a stage show.  It then was offered to or passed on by, among others, writer Ben Hecht, lyricists Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Fields, producer David Merrick, directors Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse and performers Mary Martin, Anne Bancroft, Edye Gorme and Carol Burnett.  When the show finally made it to the stage it was nominated for 8 Tony Awards but didn't win anything, 5 of them ironically lost to HELLO, DOLLY! which was turned into a film starring... Barbra Streisand!

Back at the Savoy, Lynne Page's choreography is busy but unmemorable while Michael Pavelka's skewed set of Ziegfeld's New Amsterdam stage only offers the occasional 'wow' image - really only the very last moment to be honest.  Ultimately I felt that the show needed a larger-than-life personality to swamp the stage and to distract you from the rickety star vehicle - Sheridan Smith is not that kind of star yet.

Thanks to Sheridan Smith's popularity the show is in for a long run until October - unless she does a Streisand and gets pregnant - I just wished I liked it more.

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