It is a show and a role that is eclipsed entirely by its brightest and most memorable incumbent of them all. Barbra Streisand’s shadow looms large for any actress attempting to play Fanny Brice the show girl that shook up Ziegfeld Follies and broke the mold for female performers on the stage in Vaudeville at the time. Whilst Sheridan Smith may well be a funny girl she is also increasingly becoming a national treasure as well following some spot on TV appearances that have seen her scoop award after award. Streisand’s are pretty big shoes to fill though.
The plain and ordinary Fanny Brice, a good Jewish girl from Brooklyn dreams big and with the chutzpah to make her dreams a reality she is determined to storm her way onto the Vaudeville stage. Comedy masks her insecurities as well as her lack of elegant showgirl stature. One can’t help but wonder if there is therefore a personal attachment to this role for Smith, someone who has immense acting talents but seemingly displays a lot of insecurities and is certainly not the usual ‘fit’ for a star. It gives her an edge however and makes her portrayal of Brice a touching one and certainly sees her getting pretty close to filling those shoes.
There is no doubting Smiths energy and enthusiasm. She appears to be remarkably comfortable in front of an audience, a quality that Brice had in spades of course and develops a rapport with the crowd in the tiny Menier space in no time at all. Her comedy timing is perfect and she throws herself into the role wholeheartedly. One of the great things about the Menier is the proximity between audience and performer (there has to be compensation for the uncomfortable seats and the terrible toilets) and here you cannot fail to be moved by the tears rolling down Smith’s face on several occasions as she invests herself fully into her troubled character.
Despite Smith’s many qualities there is a bigger problem here however. As with any star vehicle, as this clearly is, it leaves the rest of the production to fend for itself with the rest of the company side lined and the tiny Menier space being filled with all things Sheridan. Rarely has there been a production that desperately needs more breathing space than this. Michael Mayer’s direction, Lynne Page’s choreography and most of all Michael Pavelka’s designs are like caged animals just waiting to be let loose so that they might match the powerful performance of Smith. In a bigger house (the West End transfer was announced before the Menier run even opened) the music will soar and the company on stage can go to town. The set can evoke the grandeur of Broadway in a way that the confines of the Menier really struggles to achieve. There are even times when Smith herself seems to reign in her big numbers to match the restrictive space.
That being said there is some good support to be seen here. Joel Montague gives a solid best friend and choreographer in Edie Ryan and a stoical Bruce Montague plays a delightfully brusque yet kind hearted Florenz Ziegfeld. Most notable are the three watchful home ladies given colourful shape by Gay Soper and Valda Aviks and the always terrific Marylyn Cutts as Fanny’s Mother Rose. Less impressive is Darius Campbell giving the two dimensional character of dodgy dealing husband Nick Arnstein an equally two dimensional performance.
Ultimately Funny Girl isn’t a overly interesting story and despite the revisions made to Isobel Lennart’s original book by Harvey Fierstein it is difficult to see much beyond the stonking Jule Styne tunes. Perhaps once it reaches the Savoy it will become the Funny Girl that is aspires to be, but for now it just misses the mark.