Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Barbra Streisand was not wrong when she announced ‘I’m the Greatest Star’. It would be ridiculous to review any performance of Funny Girl and attempt to compare the star to Barbra because she is simply incomparable. And yet, it cannot be helped. Sheridan Smith, however, does an incredibly good job of coping with the prestigious role of Fanny Brice, without falling to the risk of simply imitating Barbra.

She makes the role her own, and after all she is playing Fanny not Barbra, and easily balances the comedy in the first act with the tragedy in the second. Her comic timing is simply excellent and her engagement with the audience makes Fanny even more relatable and likeable. And yet, at the same time, she can turn up the drama that reminds the audience that Fanny is not just the comic actress but is in fact a human with painful emotions that even humour cannot cover.

I think it is fair to say that Sheridan Smith carries the show at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Her Nicky Arnstein is played by Darius Campbell (formerly Danesh), and though they sound wonderful when they sing together, he does not quite have the suaveness necessary to pull of the charming Nicky and his hulking great figure is overpowering to Smith’s little frame, which makes them seem a little mismatched. His vocals are also, arguably, some of the weakest of the company and it is easy to see why Nicky’s songs were cut from the film starring Streisand.

I have to wonder whether Campbell’s voice will be able to sufficiently fill the Savoy Theatre when the show transfers to the West End in March. The show in itself demands a bigger theatre. The stage at the Menier Chocolate Factory is simply not big enough for a show with big costumes, musical numbers and a huge star at its centre. Sheridan Smith deserves a bigger theatre so that she can fully utilise her voice.

Though she did make me cry on two occasions (People and Don’t Rain on My Parade), I am of the opinion that the songs made famous by Funny Girl demand a more rousing vocal power. I would have really liked to see Smith fully utilise her belt and inject a stronger potency into the songs. When you listen to Barbra or even Lea Michele perform the Funny Girl classics, their voices reach all corners of the notes and I think Smith is more than capable of doing this, so when the show does move to the Savoy, I would be interested to see her really inject some oomph into the songs.

The character of Fanny, too, is too large for a tiny stage. She jumps off the stage and comes alive so much that she needs a full theatre to really emphasise the vivid nature of her character. Smith’s Fanny is a little more clumsy and graceless than Barbra’s, who though she was awkward, was never prone to potentially flashing the audience.

Of the supporting cast, the real star is Marilyn Cutts who plays Rose Brice, Fanny’s mother. Cutts perfectly exemplifies the stereotypical Jewish mother and hits all the funny notes of her character in all the right places.

The music itself is one of great acclaim, and rightly so, it sold out its Menier Chocolate Factory run in 90 minutes. It is beautifully directed by Michael Mayer and I love the decision to make Who Are You Now? into a duet between Fanny and Nicky, giving it more sentimentality than previously.

One final note of personal opinion, though nothing to do with Smith’s insane talent: she’s too pretty for the role. I was supposed to be able to see myself in Fanny, a Jewish girl with an unsightly nose, and yet all I could think of when Smith sang about her ‘American nose’ was how much I would kill for a little button nose like hers. Though Streisand is undoubtedly beautiful and glamorous, her distinct features made her sympathetic to the lyrics. It’s impossible to take seriously the notion that Smith might be ‘Jewish-looking’ with a large nose, and thus her standout against the Eight Beautiful Girls Eight and the other Follies must be her height.

So there you have it: that’s my review of Funny Girl, which I had been waiting to see since August. I have to wonder how I would feel had I seen it in the vast Savoy Theatre where I was lucky enough to see Gypsy (which was outstanding) this summer just gone. Ultimately the bright lights of the show rest on the talent of Sheridan Smith and she carries the show to its great heights.

I will admit that I favour Streisand’s Fanny, but this is no criticism of Sheridan’s formidable talent and the energy that she brings to the role. And as this is the first time Funny Girl has returned to the London stage since Streisand’s own run, I do believe that everyone should be flocking to buy tickets.

Funny Girl is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5 March and at the Savoy Theatre from 8 April. 

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