There is a moment in the second Act when the ever-attentive, ever-faithful, best friend, Eddie, is trying to take Fanny Brice’s mind off the absence of her husband from her latest opening night. He says words to the effect of: “Don’t worry. Every seat is sold and you haven’t done a thing.” An intentional or unintentional Meta moment?
Opening tonight, this is the first revival of Funny Girl in London in almost fifty years. Its season at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre was sold out almost instantly; its transfer to the West End where it will play at the Savoy Theatre is selling well. Its star, Sheridan Smith, is rightly loved, a two-time Olivier winner and veteran of the critically acclaimed Legally Blonde, Flare Path, and Hedda Gabler, as well as a household name because of her many and varied, and mostly excellent, television appearances, both dramatic and comedic. In terms of seats sold, Brice and Smith have much in common: Smith is a true, proven star.
The score for Funny Girl was written by Jule Styne, whose other great hit, Gypsy, has just finished a sensational season at the Savoy. Like Funny Girl, until Imelda Staunton took up the challenge, Gypsy had not played a West End theatre since Angela Lansbury starred in it decades earlier. Funny Girl has not seen a revival since Barbra Streisand triumphed at the Prince of Wales Theatre in its original outing in 1966. Like Gypsy, it is a show steeped in show-biz and peppered with well known standards and, unsurprisingly, it has been waiting for the right star to set its marquee lights blazing.
The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, of course, has been The Little Theatre That Could, producing hit (revival of musical) after hit, with an Olivier and Tony Award track record for transfers which is the understandable envy of every producing theatre in London. So, the combination of Smith, Styne, and the Menier promised the perfect storm: great gusts of ticket sales but no real chance of any rain on the parade.
The first Act of Funny Girl concludes with the triumphant anthem, Don’t Rain On My Parade. It is a genuine show-stopper. Dressed in a fetching red outfit, Smith delivers the song with real gusto, channelling her vivacious spirit into every note, phrase and verse. She shines in this moment, and while her voice might not be in the league of the great star who preceded her in this role, or those who have followed Streisand and belted this number to the stratosphere (Lea Michelle in Glee to note just one recent example), Smith brings home the bacon brilliantly.
The trouble is that Don’t Rain On My Parade is not Funny Girl; performing the part of Fanny Brice calls for a bravura performance every bit as difficult and exacting (but entirely different too) as that required for Mama Rose in Gypsy. It requires an irrepressible wit, charm, intelligence and style, enough to propel the action single-handedly and with electrifying energy. While Smith has exhibited those attributes previously, they are not evident here to the extent necessary. Her Fanny Brice is endearing but she is not breath-taking. Nor is she convincingly Jewish or alive with shtick.
Styne provides three great vocal challenges for the actor playing Brice in Funny Girl: I’m The Greatest Star, People and Don’t Rain On My Parade. They all occur within Act One, and knocking each out of the park is critical to the success of any Brice. The first establishes Brice as a great comic talent; the second is a sublime affirmation of her vocal power and emotional depths; the third, a tour-de-force which draws on the skills requisite to both of the earlier numbers, and asks for still more: sheer vocal power. Here, Smith gets by with the first, falters at the second, but rises to the occasion of the third. (Possibly, Smith was holding back at this preview performance).
Smith is not helped, in any way, by the lacklustre musical support provided by the band, here under the control of Alan Williams. The ten-piece ensemble assembled here is inadequate for the task of making Styne’s tunes pulse with vigour and Williams’ arrangements help not a jot. The sound is dull and flat, there are not nearly enough strings, the brass is not ringing and thrilling, and the driving force of the accompaniment is never urgent, never heart-pounding.
The sound design (Richard Brooker) is equally incomprehensible. Levels are poor and the dispersion of sound is wholly inadequate. (This is likely to improve as performances continue). More than anything, it sounds like a very good high school concert. Coming so soon in the wake of Kings of Broadway, where all three of Brice’s Act One numbers received proper orchestral support from Alex Parker’s 30 piece orchestra, this was a sad disappointment. It’s a false economy to scrimp on the orchestral support in an old fashioned book musical such as Funny Girl. Professional companies of any sense would not stage Gilbert and Sullivan without strings; Styne deserves nothing less.
But the lack of proper support for Smith does not end there. Michael Mayer’s direction for this revival is so completely the opposite of visionary or illuminating that if it was an astronomical event it would be a Black Hole not a Supernova. Listless, uneven, slow, and lacking in imagination, Mayer’s direction detracts from, rather than assists, Smith’s performance. Even Streisand would have struggled in this production.
Harvey Fierstein has been recruited to revise Isobel Tennant’s book, and although it is not completely clear where Fierstein’s mark is made, the book does not have a zesty, up-to-date appeal. There are no new killer jokes or scenarios. Movement between scenes is not always fluid and easy. Some of the dialogue is unfortunately clunky, to the extent that not even Smith, with her considerable ability with words, can make it seem real. Bob Merrill’s original lyrics appear intact and while clever and sweet for the most part, some numbers could have benefited from polishing.
Casting also undermines Smith’s performance here. Darius Campbell is excruciatingly bad as Nick Arnstein. He looks ill at ease in Nick’s fine attire (although no one could really be expected to pull off that particular ruffled shirt), has zero chemistry with Smith (who, to be clear, pours her heart out to him in their scenes), does not have a voice which suits Styne’s music and displays no understanding of its delicacy, and has all the onstage charisma of toothpaste. He might look the part, but he can’t play it.
Without a decent Nick to play off, Smith is hamstrung. She is further hamstrung by Marilyn Cutts’ dour and dreary Mrs Rose Brice. Mother and daughter Brice need to spark off each other, glow and bark together. Although Cutts is excellent in the scene where she explains to Fanny that Nick will go to prison, the lighter scenes do not fare as well. The unbreakable maternal bond is missing in action.
Bruce Montague is unequal to the task of playing the great, inspiring impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, and his scenes, like a good hallway, are flat and wooden. Valda Aviks and Gay Soper are caricatures more than characters as Mrs Meeker and Mrs Strakosh respectively, and nowhere is the true sense of the spirit and sound of Brooklyn or Broadway in the early Nineteenth Century consistently conveyed.
Where Smith does get good support is from Joel Montague’s Eddie who, alone of the other speaking roles, appears to be in the same production as Smith. They work nicely together and the passage from awkward acquaintance to solid friendship is nicely portrayed. He dances well too.
The ensemble offer fine support when singing and dancing, especially Matthew Croke and Luke Featherston (Cornet Man and Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat come alive because of their footwork), Stuart Ramsey (a fine, clear tenor voice) and Leah Harris and Emma Caffrey.
Lynne Page’s choreography is perfunctory. Insufficient attention is given to properly evoking the style and glamour of Ziegfeld’s Follies and while there are some good routines there is nothing truly memorable or exciting about the dancing and musical staging. Matthew Wright’s costume design is occasionally brilliant (Cornet Man and Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat) but Smith, curiously, fares badly in the costume department, mostly wearing outfits which make her look frumpy rather than glamorous, even after her star has ascended. The red outfit she wears at the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two is a standout in more ways than one.
The part of the design which works best is Michael Pavelka’s set. Clever use of faded mirrors helps set up the memory aspect of the unfolding of the plot, as well as emphasising clearly a sense of nostalgia. A double travelator is used to clever effect at several points too.
This was a great disappointment. It’s not really Sheridan Smith’s fault: she is not ideal casting (she is too pretty and the nose jokes make no sense with her) but she does her best in the circumstances. It’s just that the circumstances, overseen by Mayer and Williams, are lamentable. Mind you, both Stephen Sondheim and Carol Burnett are reported to have declined to work on Funny Girl at different times because they thought Brice had to be played by a Jewish actor. Wise.
This is that rare mis-step for the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre. Not since Paradise Foundhas one left that theatre, after a musical, without a sense of true satisfaction. Until now.